Hunters who killed tigress Avni were not authorised, says panel
A committee investigating the killing of tigress Avni, or T-1, in a Maharashtra forest has determined that controversial hunter, Asghar Ali Khan, was guilty of shooting her to death without being authorised to do so by the state’s chief wildlife warden (CWLW) — a conclusion that concurs with the finding of the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) .
The committee said in its report that the hiring of Asghar Ali Khan and his father, Shafath, was a violation of the Wildlife Protection Act because only the CWLW is entitled to hire personnel from outside the forest department to carry out such an operation. In this case, the hunters had been hired by the chief conservator of forest (territorial) in Yavatmal district, a relatively junior official.
“This is a clear violation of the law as the CWLW is the only authority to identify and choose external help for tranquilising or shooting down a problem animal,” a member of the committee said, requesting anonymity. Activists Sarita Subramaniam and Dr PV Subramaniam had filed a Right To Information application for a copy of committee’s report, which they shared with Hindustan Times.
The finding raises questions over the forest department’s claim that the animal, an alleged maneater, had been killed in self-defence by the hired hunters. The committee members’ interviews with field staff, villagers and forest officers indicated that Avni was not aggressive and had not attacked the hunters , said the report. T1 was shot dead in Ralegaon taluka of Yavatmal district on November 2 by Asghar Ali Khan after a months-long search in which 200 hunters were deployed. The big cat was accused of killing 13 people and labelled a problem tigress.
On November 9, after a wildlife conservationist raised an alarm over the killing, the state government appointed a committee to investigate the operation. The committee was headed by principal chief conservator of forests (production & management) SH Patil, and its member were Anish Andheria, president of Wildlife Conservation Trust Bilal Habib, a scientist at the Wildlife Institute of India (WII), Dehradun; Parag Nigam, a senior veterinarian from WII; Ullas Karanth of the Centre for Wildlife Studies, Bengaluru; and additional PCCF Nitin Kakodkar, who served as the panel’s coordinator.
The team’s report said the hunters may have tampered with evidence that could prove they followed illegal procedures in killing T1. “For reasons explained in our findings it is clear the Asghar Ali Khan is guilty of unauthorised shooting and killing of tigress T-1,” the report’s summary read.
“He appears to have clandestinely removed the weapons and scheduled drugs used in the operation [to kill Avni] to Hyderabad without informing authorities. This opens up the possibility of such important evidence being tampered with as seen in our findings.”
According to the report, the position of the shooter, the car he was travelling in and the path of the bullet reconstructed by veterinarians indicate that the animal was heading away from the vehicle when shot. “We also noted that tigress T-1’s carcass was moved away from its initial position subsequently,” the report said.
There was no line of command during the entire operation, orders were dictated in an uncoordinated and unorganised manner, which left the entire field staff confused, leading to chaos during the operation, the report concluded. “Lack of clarity in assigning local leadership of the operation to the deputy conservator of forests (executive officer on the field) appears to be the major reason for operational drift and errors in decision making,” it said.
The report said three acts — Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, Arms Act, 1959, and Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act, 1985 — were violated during the operation. Asghar Ali did not submit his weapon or licence during the investigation and told the committee he did not remember which gun he used to shoot the tiger, its make or type.
“Asghar Ali’s explanation on why the ejected cartridge was not collected and submitted minutes after the tigress was shot was not convincing. This is a clear breach and serious lapse on the part of Ali, his team and forest officers,” the report said. In his statement to the committee, Asghar Ali Khan said he does not remember the technical details and weapon numbers of the licensed weapons. “…I shall be submitting the same. I was in possession of two licensed weapons on the night of November 2, 2018, and I used one of them for the operation that night, the details of which I don’t remember,” the statement read.
The report said that cases should be registered against Ashgar Ali Khan by forest and police authorities and the role and culpability of his father, Shafath Ali, and other private hunters involved in the operation should be investigated.
Maharashtra’s forest minister, Sudhir Mungantiwar, said the government was aware of the issues raised by the report. “The details have already been shared with the state law and judiciary department. Once they respond, informing us about section wise violations as per law, follow up action will be initiated. As far as future instances of conflict cases are concerned, several committees within the forest department are currently working in tandem to ensure amicable solutions,” said Mungantiwar.
The report confirmed that the tigress had killed 13 people between June 2016 and August 2018. Avni, along with male tiger, T-2 ,and cubs, T1C1 and T1C2, had also killed 74 cattle since 2015. A state official said the government was still examining the details of the case and independent accounts of senior forest officers.
“We have recently received the response from CWLW for his version about both NTCA and the state report. We are examining it and future course of action will be decided soon. We may take the opinion of the law and judiciary department,” said Virendra Tiwari, additional principal chief conservator of forests (Mantralaya).
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