Dubbed a man-eater by the forest department that held it responsible for the death of 13 persons, tigress Avni was killed on November 2 by Ashgar, the son Hyderabad-based hunter Nawab Shafath Ali Khan. While the killing itself was shrouded in controversy, the matter escalated when accusations surfaced that no attempt was made to tranquilise the animal.
A war of words between state forest minister Sudhir Mungantiwar and union minister Maneka Gandhi eventually led to the formation of two separate committees to probe the death: one under the ambit of the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) and another under the state government.
Sources in the Union Ministry of Environment and Forest (MoEF) said that the committee under the centre’s NTCA found a series of inaccuracies in the claims made by the state government and concluded that the ‘self-defence theory’ was brought in to try and obscure the issue.
After Avni’s death, Maharashtra Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (Wildlife) A K Misra had claimed that the tigress was shot dead in self-defence. He had said that a team along with Asghar was tracking the big cat. “Forester Mukhbir Sheikh managed to shoot a tranquiliser dart at her. But she got furious and charged at the team, forcing Asghar to shoot in self-defence from a distance of about 8 to 10 metres,” he had claimed.
“The fundamental issue is that we were authorised to shoot the tiger. The permission was given to try and catch her and if that failed, we had permission to shoot the tiger. The doctors had nearly two years to try and catch her, but they weren’t able to. They tried very hard,” said Shafath Ali Khan.f
The Killing: With Ineffective Dart and a Team Without Plan
The inaccuracies began with the dart itself and sources from the MoEF and state forest department told News18 that the dart was prepared three days before the incident. Not only is it against the norms prescribed by the NTCA, it also makes the dart virtually ineffective. Veterinarians from the Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP) in Maharashtra and the Kaziranga National Park confirmed to News18 that NTCA protocol says a dart must be prepared fresh.
A vet who occasionally consults for SGNP explained, “It isn’t just a matter of SGNP. The substance used to tranquilise a big cat is a mixture and its efficacy decreases with time. So you freshly prepare the dart only when you know you’re about to try and tranquilise the animal.”
Avni’s post mortem report, submitted by Nagpur-based wildlife biologist Milind Pariwakam who represented the Maharashtra forest department, had found the “fascia (connective tissue under the skin) beneath darted needle was intact”. This, the probe found, was due to the fact that the tigress was shot from a distance that rendered the dart ineffective.
With the anesthesia requiring up to 30 minutes to work, experts say the tigers should ideally not be darted at night. Avni was killed at 10pm. Once darted, a tiger can flee rapidly, making it virtually impossible to track it unless the area is a closed off space.
There have even been cases of tigers heading for water bodies and subsequently drowning. NTCA guidelines mandate that night-vision binoculars be used. Last year, the death of a tigress at Nagarhole Tiger Reserve in Karnataka also got shrouded in allegations of being a botched darting attempt.
Apart from the three-day old dart, the team that tracked Avni on a jeep didn’t have a veterinarian or biologist on board, nor a crate, net or cage, said the source. Darting a tiger is always dangerous—for both the tiger and the team.
The dart was fired by a forest guard, who the probe found, was not authorised to do so. While NTCA guidelines mandate the dosage of the tranquilisers, an immobilisation typically requires the presence of more than one vet—one for dart, one for procedure and one for monitoring the vital parameters of the tiger and ensuring that there are no adverse reactions.
The Lure: A mother’s Desperation to Protect Her Cubs
The two million years of evolution that has ensured the tiger is at the top of the food chain irrespective of its habitat, has also meant that tigers, even at the best of times, are not easy to catch. A tigress like Avni, who had cubs to protect and had learned that humans were tracking her, even more so. The forest department’s operation to track Avni lasted months and is touted to be the largest of its kind in the state’s history.
Ultimately, it was her instinct to protect her 10-month-old cubs that proved to be her undoing. The investigation found that the a team of veterinarians who had come from Nagpur Zoo to assist the operation had used urine from a male tiger, spraying it in the area to lure her, said sources in the MoEF. Male tigers often kill young cubs in a bid to protect their territory and Avni was investigating the worrying smell when she was gunned down, sources said.
At the time, the Nawab was in Patna for a day. “This was a key finding. Throughout the operation, all attempts were scuttled by the Nawab who was keen to kill the tigress and had no interest in trying to catch her alive. It was felt that if she was tranquilised when he was absent, there would be a better chance of catching her alive,” said an MoEF source. This was confirmed by the veterinarians in Nagpur zoo.
Moreover, sources in the MoEF said that investigators had recreated the incident – the angle of the shot, the position in which Avni was found, her pug marks – and concluded that Avni wasn’t in “an attacking position” when she was shot down. This is in stark contrast to Maharashtra forest department’s claims that the tigress was killed in an “act of self-defence” after she charged at the open jeep. The new revelation is backed up by the post mortem report which says bullet’s entry point and its trajectory show that “the animal was facing away from the person who fired the bullet”.
The Hunter’s Smoking Gun
The report, sources in the MoEF told News18, questions a series of issues pertaining to the role played by the nawab and his son Ashghar, including the allegations of the dubious sale of ketamine – a highly controlled schedule X drug – to the forest department.
“There is an ongoing investigation because earlier in the year, during a different case, he (nawab) had offered to give us ketamine, which we use to tranquilise animals. However, we found that these were expired and the receipts for the substance were also suspicious. The matter is being probed,” said a source in the Maharashtra forest department.
Ketamine contains psychotropic drugs and has often been used in date rape cases, investigators have found.
“We don’t handle ketamine. These drugs are not handled by us. Once the drug has been prepared, anyone can shoot the dart. In fact, we have been training forest department officials across the country in shooting the dart since, as far as my knowledge, there isn’t any institute which teaches them that,” said Shafath Ali Khan.
But a key point, the MoEF source said, was that neither the nawab nor his son had yet submitted their guns to match it with the bullets that were recovered during the post mortem. The two told MoEF that they had deposited their guns with the Hyderabad police since elections would be held there on December 7.
“What is the point of submitting the guns? What will they achieve? In no operation, of the sort, in the past have guns been asked to be submitted for testing. What will it prove? Asghar was the one who called up the forest department and informed them about who shot the bullet. So there is no doubt about that, but if they want the gun then we will submit… we are coordinating,” said Shafath Ali Khan.
As per the necroscopy report, the bullet left Avni with a “circular punctured wound of 0.5 cm diameter on the left thoracic region’, which suggests that the bullet hit her near the shoulder before going on to pierce her ribs, rupture her lungs and heart. Avni, the report said, “died of excessive internal haemorrhage and cardio-respiratory failure”
With the guns not present, the probe wasn’t able to check the allegations regarding the calibre of gun used, the sources said.
Immediately after her death, there were allegations – both from the activists and from within the forest department – that a .458 Winchester Magnum rifle was used, despite the NTCA barring the use of any calibre lower than .375, to ensure the animal’s death is instant and painless. The .458 Winchester Magnum rifle was a gun introduced in 1956 for the express purpose of game hunting of heavy, thick-skinned African species considered dangerous, such as the elephant, rhinoceros and African Cape buffalo.
“We had two rifles and these were licensed. They are both in the non-prohibited bore area but I can’t tell you exactly which gun, since the matter is under investigation,” said Shafath Ali Khan.
The gun is also pertinent, explained sources, to verify if Ashghar had the license to use it as per the Arms Act. The angle of the shot – what the MoEF source described as a “classic hunter’s angle” —also suggests that this was not a case of a hurriedly fired round in self-defence.
The investigators also flagged the delay in reaching the spot after Avni was shot. As per forest department sources, the team reached over an hour after the killing. “This was in spite of the fact that a base camp was just 15 kilometers away. Why didn’t anyone reach the spot?” said the source.
The conclusion of a “pre-meditated kill” also fits in with what investigators found with regard to the time period between the dart and the shot being fired. “It was done a very short period of time. The bullet was fired within no time, and as a result, even if the dart had been effective, the tranquilising chemical would not have transmitted to internal angles. Even for smaller tigers, you need at least 15 minutes for the drugs to be effective,” said the source.