Asghar Ali Khan, who shot tigress Avni dead, says she had to depend on humans for prey, but outraged activists insist that the human-tiger conflict is not something the authorities should delegate to a ‘shikaari’.(HT Photo/ Representative Image)
Asghar Ali Khan, who shot tigress Avni dead, says she had to depend on humans for prey, but outraged activists insist that the human-tiger conflict is not something the authorities should delegate to a ‘shikaari’.(HT Photo/ Representative Image)

Man who killed tigress Avni defends self, wildlife experts livid

Asghar Ali Khan, who shot the ‘man-eater’ dead, says the tigress had to depend on humans for prey, but outraged activists insist that the human-tiger conflict is not something the authorities should delegate to a ‘shikaari’
By Jayashree Nandi | Hindustan Times, Masinagudi
UPDATED ON NOV 13, 2018 01:07 PM IST

Asghar Ali Khan, 38, the man who shot dead tigress T1 (Avni) under controversial circumstances in Maharashtra’s Yavatmal forest on November 2, says he is preparing to accompany his father, Shafath Ali Khan (hunter and nawab of an erstwhile aristocratic family from Hyderabad), shortly to retrieve Avni’s cubs.

“I feel on top of the world when I tranquillise or eliminate a problem animal, but in all future operations, tranquillising will be my priority,” he says.

Avni was his first kill although he says he has participated in 10 tranquillising operations. It’s hard to ignore that Ali Khan has in some ways been blooded like his great-grandfather Sultan Ali Khan Bahadur and father Shafath Ali. Like his father, he prefers to dress in military camouflage. And he sees a distinct role for people like him in wildlife operations, especially where they involve tranquillising or putting down a wild animal.

“You have to be absolutely crazy to pursue this adventure. It involves a risk to life. Regular people cannot do it,” he says. Ali Khan is a marksman who never practised in the wild until eight years ago, when he began accompanying his father on operations. “Precision shooting is an art. Even for tranquillising you have to use a weapon, a gun. It’s like using a rifle. Veterinary doctors don’t have shooting experience. That’s where people like us are needed,” he says.

The soft-spoken Ashgar has a contained energy about him. He studied at Hyderabad Public School and Nizam’s College in Hyderabad before doing an MBA from Leeds University in the UK. He learned shooting from his father at the age of nine in their Hyderabad haveli and in Masinagudi, where his father owns a wildlife resort called Safari Land. It’s where father and son have now retired to after Yavatmal, even as a storm blows around that killing.

Autopsy report of Avni suggests that the bullet hit her left side when she was facing away from the shooter, and not when she was charging at Ali Khan’s team, contradicting his version of events.

Hunting ground

Masinagudi used to be a preferred hunting ground for Ali Khan’s father and grandfather before the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972 came into force. Their resort is an hour’s drive from Ooty via Kalahatty road, which is known for a high number of wild animal sightings, including elephants, leopards and tigers.

Ali Khan’s wife and mother are at home but the doors of their home at the resort remained shut during his (and his father’s) roughly two-and-half hour meeting with this reporter; there were no guests at the resort.

Shafath Ali, the father, learnt hunting from his grandfather Sultan Ali, whom he describes as a “passionate conservationist and one of the few Indians whom the British took as consultant to handle man-animal conflicts.”

Shafath Ali says the tales of ‘shikaar’ (hunting) and human-animal conflicts were routine around the dining table at home. “Till 1976-77, hunting was allowed. We used to get hunting licences, and it was a family ritual to go hunting. Hunting licences were also issued in Masinagudi. I used to practice here very often.”

He says his first encounter, when he was 19, was with a rogue elephant which killed 12 people on the outskirts of Mysore. He put the elephant down.

Shafath Ali’s conversation displays that he draws a thin line between hunting and conservation. “When the Wildlife Protection Act came into effect, the royalty, the gentlemen shikaaris, were all hanging up their weapons, and an around 200-year era of ‘wildlife conservation’ was rapidly coming to an end. National parks are a gift from the nobility; they were passionately protected private forests thanks to the vested interest in hunting,” he says.

He has kept in touch with both conservation and hunting through his involvement in around 40 operations, for various state governments — all done for free. Shafath Ali says he has been invited and continues to be a consultant for eight state governments . He says that Ali Khan has also been part of 10 tranquillising operations on rogue elephants, tigers, bears and leopards.

‘Trigger-happy gunmen’

Wildlife activists say Ali Khan’s use of a tranquillising gun is in violation of various laws because the drugs and quantity of these psychotropic substances can only be signed off on by a registered, qualified wildlife veterinarian.

Ali Khan’s defence is that the gun was loaded by one such.“Avni was aggressive by nature and had lost the fear of humans. Had I succeeded in saving her, it would have been a great moment. You must understand that though the area was projected to be a forest, Yavatmal is not a forest and Avni was stressed because she was not in her natural habitat. She was not getting prey so she had to depend on humans in the village for prey,” says Ali Khan.

Ali Khan, who has an All India Arms licence, has left the gun used to kill Avni in Hyderabad and says he is open to submit it if there is need for “further investigation”. Their critics call them trigger-happy gunmen who are too cheap to pay for expensive gaming safaris overseas, and instead participate in rescue operations for the thrill and a sense of machismo.“In most states, private hunters are invited because of their strong political connections. Left to themselves, state governments would call commandos or police personnel to carry out the killing. Are you telling me there are no commandos or police personnel in Mahrashtra to do the job... ?” asked Vidya Athreya, a Pune based-wildlife biologist. The cubs are priority now, says Ali Khan.

“They will be tranquillised and moved to a fairly large place, and trained to hunt for a few months by chasing prey within the area. They are nine months old and as big as a leopard. They can hunt rabbits. Goats have also been tied on the trail they use ,” he adds.

Wildlife experts say their chance of survival is bleak. “If you look at tiger sociology, cubs trail the mother until they are a little over two years old. They pick up predation techniques from the mother, who has been killed,” says Rajesh Gopal, the former head of Project Tiger. “If the forest department succeeds in tracking them, they may be bred in captivity. Why should one wait for 13 people to die? The problem should have been resolved long ago. You need people’s support to maintain the tiger population,” says Gopal.“I am shocked that the nawab is being called to rescue cubs. This is absolute lack of professionalism. I don’t understand why we need a shikaari to do all this? Human-tiger interface is part of forest management, frontline staff has to be well-versed with such circumstances,” he adds.Shafath Ali says forest departments are incapable of handling aggressive, rogue animals and call him when all other ammunition is exhausted.

Wildlife experts and veterinarians disagree. “He (Shafath Ali) has called me and so many other veterinarians pleading to be included in conflict operations. The reason he is allowed (elsewhere) is his political clout and contacts. Why couldn’t the Maharashtra government call scientists, doctors to do the operation?,” said a former veterinary doctor of Mysore zoo, HS Prayag who used to be posted in Bandipur tiger reserve.

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