“What kind of satisfaction can one get by killing the national animal?” asks Asghar Ali Khan, the Hyderabad-based shooter who on Friday shot and killed Avni, the tigress responsible for the death of 13 persons at Yavatmal district in Maharashtra. The 36-year-old hunter termed the operation unsuccessful as his team was unable to capture the 6-year-old tigress alive.
Outrage ensued on social media on Saturday after tigress Avni was killed late on Friday. Criticism has come from several quarters regarding the circumstances surrounding Avni’s shooting, with many arguing that the animal could have been tranquillized and captured, instead of being shot dead. Asghar, the son of Nawab Shafath Ali Khan who is a well-known shooter, has been his father's co-shooter in similar operations in the past. He defends shooting the tiger citing circumstances on the ground.
Asghar tells TNM that the area where the team found the tiger was the same place where three villagers were killed by the animal in August. "There was a festival going on at a nearby village on Friday evening, due to which a lot of people were using the road where the tigress was spotted. We were at the forest base camp office and got a call that the tigress had been spotted. The team then rushed to the spot with the objective of moving her away from the people using the road," said Asghar.
“People were even coming on bikes, and with children. We alerted the people using the road and escorted them out of the area, to cordon the area so no incident happens. We first took precautions,” claims the shooter. But the team had difficulty spotting the tigress.
“It was difficult to spot her due to the terrain of the ground, the bushes that are almost 6 feet tall were providing her cover. We spotted her past 10pm, and the forest officials first shot at her with a tranquillizer. But it takes 10-15 minutes for the tranquillizer to kick in and that time is very crucial, anything can happen. She was very aggressive and charged at us, and my priority was to protect the team I was with. I shot the tigress when she was barely 7-8 metres in front of us,” claims Asghar.
“I am sad about the killing, what kind of satisfaction can one get by killing the national animal?” he asks. “It is a beautiful animal, we have caught tigers alive before. There is no happiness or satisfaction in this killing, I would not term it a successful operation. It had to be done, there was no choice,” says Asghar.
“She had come very close to human habitations several times. This tigress had a strange behaviour, she would roam close to the villagers. There are no toilets in the villages. Early morning, when it is still dark and people step out, is when she waited at the edge of the village to make her kill,” he explains.
Asghar, who is also the secretary of Hyderabad-based Wildlife TranquiForce (WTF), refuted allegations that he did not have the authorization to shoot and that there was no government veterinarian present at the time of the Avni’s killing. “The Maharashtra Forest Department had given authorisation to Shafath Ali Khan along with his team, my work was to just protect the team, that was my assigned job,” he says defensively.
He now fears that Avni’s two cubs too would turn man-eaters as her mother has taught them to hunt humans. “The two cubs are close to being one year old. In the past three human-kills, the tiger cubs have eaten human flesh, Avni has taught the cubs to hunt humans. My worst fear is they too would become man-eaters,” he says.
The team, however, have taken steps to naturalise the cubs and prevent them from turning man-eaters by setting up baits in the form of goats and pigs. “But it will take some time to track them. We have installed cameras to monitor their movements.” The operation is still ongoing, says Asghar. Activists claim that the two cubs face either starvation or a life in captivity.
On Saturday, a seven-member team conducted a post-mortem of the tiger at Nagpur's Gorewada rescue centre. The team found the tiger’s lungs to be punctured.
Sources have reportedly told Times of India that the tiger was shot on the left side, with a bullet exit wound on the right. The sources reportedly claimed that if the tiger charged at the team as claimed by Asgar, then it should have been shot in the face, shoulder or chest. They further told TOI that the shot seemed to be a deliberate attempt to kill the tigress.
“We are not doing the operation in lab conditions, at that point in time we were facing death, as a man-eating tiger was charging at us,” Asghar says.
Various NGO’s and activists had protested the Maharashtra Forest Department’s order on September 4 to shoot the tigress at sight. The department took the drastic step after three humans were killed in August this year, pushing the total death toll to 13. The first killing by the tiger was reported in June 2016. The Maharashtra Forest Department justified their decision to issue the shoot at sight order after the six-year-old tigress and her two cubs consumed 60 % of the human corpse in September, reported Firstpost. According to NTCA’s guidelines, a man-eating tiger has to leave its own habitat and come into human territory, lurk on humans as if they are its own prey, and feed its flesh, habitually. It can then only be labelled as a ‘man-eater’.
The department's order was upheld by the Bombay High Court and the Supreme Court also refused to interfere in the matter. In October, several animal rights activists and NGOs had launched an online petition urging the President of India to step in and prevent the killing. The petition on change.org platform received endorsements from several celebrities and politicians, but the Maharashtra government refused to back off.