Avni's killing violates wildlife laws: Autopsy report punctures self-defence theory, fate of her cubs uncertain

"There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact," said the great Sherlock Holmes.

All the claims of the father-son hunter duo of Shafat Ali Khan and Asghar Ali have been debunked as more and more scientific, medical and forensic evidence expose them in the case of the shooting of tigress Avni in the Borati forest of Maharashtra's Yavatmal district. Both sharp-shooters were evidently aided and abetted by a pliable Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (Wildlife) and Maharashtra's Chief Wildlife Warden AK Misra, with seemingly abundant pressure from state Forest Minister Sudhir Mungantiwar.

At the outset, let us clear the air about the Supreme Court and Bombay High Court's not-so-specific orders: The top court had decided not to interfere with Misra's 4 September shoot-at-sight order, which was earlier upheld by the Nagpur bench of the high court. The Supreme Court had reiterated that Avni's cubs should be tranquilised, rescued and shifted to a rescue centre, and their mother — officially known as T1 — should to be tranquilised and captured. She was to be eliminated only if all attempts to capture her failed.

Here, a redundant clause of the Wildlife Protection Act (1972) needs to be addressed, wherein it empowers a single official, the Chief Wildlife Warden, as the sole authority who can declare an animal a threat to humans, declare it a "man-eater", and thereby order its elimination. The colonial hangover is evident in the persistence to enforce this archaic clause absurdly, as it further entrusts this one official with the power to bring absolutely anyone on board to hunt and eliminate supposed "man-eater".

Camera trap images of tigress Avni. Images procured by Ankita Virmani

Camera trap images of tigress Avni. Images procured by Ankita Virmani

It was under this clause of the Wildlife Protection Act that Misra summoned a private hunter to shoot Avni dead without making any attempts to tranquilise her, or her cubs, with the help of trained and skilled wildlife veterinarians.

After fumbling and muddling through various attempts to tranquilise the tigress and her cubs, the Maharashtra Forest Department did not even try to tranquilise Avni, but shot her in the dead of the night in an evidently "fake encounter". This state-sponsored, legalised hunting has the nation on the boil, as it was not the authorised hunter, Shafat Ali Khan, but his son Asghar Ali, who pulled the trigger.

Khan was not present in the Borati forest in Yavatmal on the night of 2 November when Avni was killed, having left Pandharkhawda to attend a meeting in Bihar. He had claimed that a forest official had fired the dart at the tigress — this is illegal as a forest official is not authorised to carry out this task, and only a registered veterinarian can dart and perform the medical procedure of tranquilising an animal.

The Maharashtra Forest Department has also claimed that the tranquiliser dart had been ineffective, and that Avni had charged at the team, at which point Ali had managed to kill the tigress in one shot in self-defence. The Chief Wildlife Warden, who should not have authorised any such darting or hunting expedition at night, later alleged that Ali had pulled the trigger in panic.

This raises a number of questions: How did Misra authorise someone like Ali, who has no experience with wild tigers, to enter the forest with a firearm? How was the hunting party allowed to go looking for the tigress at night without any forest official of the rank of an Assistant Conservator of Forests or above? How was there no veterinarian with the hunting party?

Furthermore, a plethora of discrepancies have emerged in the versions of the incident, as well as in Avni's autopsy report and the report of the field biologists.

According to the an autopsy report submitted to Misra on Sunday, the dart was evidently planted on Avni's thigh after she was shot dead, not before the shooting. During her postmortem examination, the dart was found in her thigh subcutaneously, without having pierced the fascia (the sheath of skin covering the muscles). The protective sleeve of the needle was missing, there was also no haematoma, a blood clot in the tissue around the dart, which occurs when a dart is fired under pressure from a tranquiliser gun on a live animal.

Also, the "attacking-and-charging tigress" theory falls flat on its face as the entry point of the bullet, according to the autopsy report, was found to be from the left scapula (shoulder blade). It would have been on Avni's head, face, neck, shoulder or underside had she been facing the open vehicle of the hunting team. In fact, the wildlife biologists' report clearly says that the tigress was looking away from the attacker, completely throwing the Maharashtra Forest Department's claim out the window.

Moreover, the trajectory of the bullet that hit her left scapula and her third rib and then perforated her lung and cranial aorta led to massive haemorrhaging and finally, Avni's death. The bullet hit two bones, reducing its velocity, and got lodged in the acromion process of opposite scapula. The lack of an exit wound on her right side as well as lack of charring or tattooing near the entry wound indicated that there was considerable distance between the shooter and the tigress.

Any tourist on a jungle safari knows that if an animal charges at their vehicle, the driver reverses and guns the engine, blows the horn or flashes the headlights to scare it away. So why didn't the trained driver of the Maharashtra Forest Department not do likewise if Avni had, indeed, come charging at their vehicle?

The "panic killing" theory won't hold either, as Misra grossly erred in permitting a greenhorn with zero experience of dealing with a protective tigress mother in her domain at night. The Principal Chief Conservator of Forests was also irresponsible as he had endangered human lives by permitting a single team, without adequate backup, to venture into the tigress' territory four nights before a new moon.

The truth is that Asghar Ali wasn't authorised to shoot Avni, and this case violates all wildlife laws in the country. "It's elementary, Watson," would have been Sherlock Holmes' observation, that the killing of tigress Avni appeared to be a planned operation. It's a textbook example from a "manual on total mismanagement of wildlife rescues".

Meanwhile, forest officials have yet to find Avni's two orphaned cubs, and time is running out as the imminent threat of death by starvation hangs over them.

The author was one of the Supreme Court petitioners in the Avni case and is the director of Earth Brigade Foundation

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Updated Date: Nov 13, 2018 23:23:17 IST

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