Nawab Shafath Ali Khan has always been known to be an ace shooter ever since he bagged a gold medal at the 12th National Games representing Mysore in 1968. He was just 12.
But the descendant of the Hyderabad Nizam family has perhaps never been as trigger-happy as he is in recent days. Beginning June 3, Khan has forayed deep into the countryside of Bihar to take aim and shoot dead 300 of the 30,000 nilgais that roam in herds and wreck havoc to farmland spread over 31 of the state’s 38 districts.
Sporting green fatigues alongside a cap and hunting boots, Khan is carrying out the state’s order to cull nilgais declared vermin by the Bihar government. The order to cull nilgais in Bihar, monkeys in Himachal Pradesh, peacocks in Goa and wild boar in Uttarakhand triggered howls of protest from animal lovers and wildlife enthusiasts, including union minister for women and child development Maneka Gandhi. The dispute reached the Supreme Court which last month refused to stop the culling, but failed to silence the critics who still insist the shoot-to-kill order to be “inhuman”.
“This is the only option,” says Khan without a hint of remorse. Other options like driving the nilgais into the forests have largely failed. For that matter, Bihar has little forest cover with only about 7 percent of its total geographical area classified as forest.
Weighing 200 kg when full grown, the nilgais breed fast and their burgeoning population has been too much of a burden for the locals who see Khan more as a messiah than just a hunter. They egg on Khan each time he opens fire and cheer after an antelope is felled. “I’m not a trigger-happy hunter...in fact, I hate killing animals. I’m a conservationist doing this as a last resort,” explains Khan.
As Khan looks for his kill armed with .315 and .306 rifles neatly kept aside in his Mahindra Thar jeep, locals share his sentiments. Some 80 percent of Mokama’s 1.6 lakh hectares of farmland are routinely raided by the nilgais, feasting on wheat, maize, pumpkin and other vegetables.
For Amit Singh of Shiwnar village, the culling should have been ordered much earlier. “I got my land fenced, but they (nilgais) broke it and damaged almost half my crop,” he says. As he patrols his land on a horse, he demands more extensive culling of the antelopes.
Anand Murari is also a farmer and another strong advocate of the culling. “We are happy. In early 1970s, one or two nilgais were seen. But now they come in herds of 40-50,” he says. Dheeraj Paswan from Sahari village says he has stopped cultivating maize altogether because of the nilgai menace.
In village after village of Mokama, people spend sleepless nights to keep vigil against the raiding nilgais and protect their crops. “Nahi jagenge to khana kaha se milega (If I don’t remain awake, how will I get food),” says Munni Singh, another farmer. And when the dawn breaks, womenfolk of the villages light incense sticks and sprinkle vermilion in their fields to propitiate the Gods for keeping the nilgais away.
They feel their prayers have finally been answered in the shape of Khan, Bihar’s only “culling officer”. Requests to Khan for culling are pouring in from other districts and on June 24, he received no less than 22 such pleas from various parts of the state.
Though found in abundance, Khan insists culling is an arduous task. It’s a 15-16 hours daily assignment. He has also run out of cartridges and gone back to Hyderabad to get fresh ammunition. Mokama, meanwhile is waiting for his return and the culling to restart.