There was renewed hope and anxiety at the base camp where men and women in green fatigues were continuously monitoring messages, maps and photos on their cell phones.
Early that morning, a track team had found fresh pugmarks in a patch of forest close by.
Another team came up with blurred images of a tiger in one of the 90 camera-traps, a forest department source said, set up across the 50-square kilometre area of deciduous shrub jungle interspersed with cotton farms and water bodies. “The stripes look like that of a female,” said a young forester in green fatigues, his voice tense. “The image is not clear,” his senior says, “we need more clarity on that.”
Could it be her? Could she be around?
Teams of forest guards, trackers and sharp shooters were about to fan out in different directions for yet another arduous day, searching for a tigress that had, along with her two cubs, been elusive for almost two years.
At least 13 villagers had been attacked and killed by tigers – she was the suspect in all the cases.
For two months, a massive operation was underway to either ‘capture or kill’ the tigress, the wildlife warden’s order said. But neither option was easy. Since August 28, 2018, she had not yielded a clue. A small beep on the camera, or signs of pugmarks, would raise hopes among the teams trying to track and nail her down.
It’s a Sunday morning in mid-October, the winter chill is yet to set in. We are in an isolated forest patch where officials have set up a temporary tent that they call the base of this operation between Loni and Sarati villages in western Vidarbha’s Yavatmal district, a region infamous for the continuing spell of cotton farmers’ suicides.
This is Ralegaon tehsil, north of national highway 43, between Wadki and Umri villages Irt’s home mainly to Gond tribals, most of them small and marginal farmers who grow cotton and lentils.
The battery of tiger-trackers comprises 200 foresters – guards, range forest officials from the wildlife wing of the Maharashtra Forest Department, the Forest Development Corporation of the state, the District Forest Officer, the Chief Conservator of Forests (Wildlife) and the topmost officer of the wildlife wing, the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (PCCF, Wildlife). All working in tandem, round the clock, stationed on the ground, hunting for the wildcat and her two cubs.
Also in the group is a specialised team of sharp-shooters from Hyderabad, led by Nawab Shafath Ali Khan, a 60-year-old trained hunter from an aristocratic family. The Nawab’s presence has divided the officials and local conservationists, who don’t quite welcome his role. But he’s a go-to man though for wildlife authorities across India for tranquilising or killing a rogue wild-animal.
“He’s done that several times,” says his team member Syyed Moinuddin Khan. Some time ago, he tranquillised and captured a tigress that had killed two people near the Tadoba National Park, one of India’s 50 designated tiger reserves.
He darted a “rogue” elephant that trampled 15 people to death over six months in Bihar and Jharkhand, and shot a leopard that had killed seven people in western Maharashtra.
But this is different, says the bespectacled and soft-spoken shooter, brandishing a green rifle that fires the darts.
“The tigress is with her cubs,” says Shafath Ali at the base camp where he has arrived that Sunday morning with his son and a team of assistants wearing fatigues, “We must first tranquilise her and then capture her two cubs too.”
“It is easier said than done”, says his son Asaghar, who is assisting his father in this operation. A clear sighting of the tigress is very difficult and that’s prolonging a resolution.
She’s changing her location quickly, not staying at any place for more than eight hours, says a Special Tiger Force person summoned here a month ago for this operation from the Pench Tiger Reserve in Nagpur distrtc, some 250 kilometres away.
Some in the team sound frustrated. Patience is the key, but they seem to be running short.
T1 – or Avni as the locals call her – is believed to have killed between 13 and 15 villagers in two years in Ralegaon. She’s here, hiding somewhere in the green cover of shrub and thick forests of the tehsil.
In two years, she has plunged around a dozen villages in a 50 square kilometre area into fear and anxiety. The villagers are nervous, reluctant to venture into their fields to pick the cotton, even though it’s harvest time. “I have not seen my farm for a year now,” says Kalabai Shendre, whose husband was among the T1’s victims in Loni village.
T1 could charge at anybody – though she hasn’t attacked a human being since her last victim on August 28 in Pimpalshenda village, northward of the base camp location. She is aggressive and unpredictable, say those who have seen her.
Forest officials are desperate; another human attack and the local anger would boil over. On the other hand, tiger lovers and conservationists are filing court cases to question the order to kill T1.
The Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (Wildlife), A.K. Misra, who’s camping at nearby Pandharkawada along with his deputy for this operation, is due to retire in four months. “Sir might retire here,” quips one of his young officers.
The problem did not start with T1, nor will it end with her end, say wildlife activists. It is in fact set to worsen – and India has no clue how to fix it.
“This is the right time to sit down and redraft our conservation strategy,” says Nagpur-based Nitin Desai, the central India Director of the Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI). “We have to deal with a tiger population that has not seen or won’t see a contiguous forest belt. We are essentially looking at wild cats hovering around us.”
Desai’s words ring true: about 150 kilometres away from T1’s area, in Dhamangaon Railway tehsil of Amravati district, an adolescent male tiger that seems to have separated from its mother killed a man in Mangrul Dastgir village, on his farm, on October 19, and a woman three days later near Amravati city.
Forest officials believe the tiger travelled over 200 kilometres from Chandrapur district to reach there, traversing mostly non-forest areas. A new problem, they thought, is brewing. Then the officials tracking that tiger reported that it had crossed over into Madhya Pradesh, travelling by then nearly 350 kilometres from Chandrapur.
T1 perhaps came into this area from the Tipeshwar Wildlife Sanctuary, about 50 kilometres westward, in Yavatmal district – she’s one of two cubs of her mother, says the district wildlife warden and tiger lover Ramzan Veerani. A male tiger, T2, father of her two cubs, shares her territory.
“She came to this belt around 2014 and settled,” Veerani, a lecturer in a college in Pandharkawada, says. “We have been tracking her movement ever since; this is the first time in decades that this area has got a tiger.”
The villagers living nearby agree. “I have not heard of the presence of a tiger in this area ever,” says Mohan Thepale, 63, of Sarati village. Now stories of the tigress and her two cubs abound.
This region, like many other landscapes of Vidarbha, is a mix of small forest patches in between agriculture fields and infrastructure projects – new or widened roads, a canal of the Bembla irrigation project – that have significantly eroded the forest cover.
T1 first killed Sonabai Ghosale, a woman in her 60s, in Borati village in June 2016. The tigress did not have cubs then. She delivered them at the end of 2017. The conflict escalated in August 2018, when T1 is alleged to have killed three men. Her latest victim was a herdsman and farmer, Nagorao Junghare, 55, in Pimpalshenda village on August 28.
By then the principal conservator had issued the order to kill the tigress. The edict was challenged first in the High Court and later in the Supreme Court, which upheld the High Court order to allow the tigress to be ‘neutralised’ if she could not be captured alive.
Some conservationists then sought a Presidential pardon for the tigress.
Meanwhile, forest officials invited shooter Shafath Ali Khan, but had to send him back after the protests by conservationists and when Union Minister Menaka Gandhi intervened.
In September, an expert team from Madhya Pradesh was summoned. The team came with four elephants and a fifth tusker was called in from the Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve in Chandrapur.
The operation suffered a major setback when the elephant from Chandrapur went astray one night and killed two persons – in Chahand and Pohana villages, some 30 kilometres from the base camp site in central Ralegaon, after having freed itself from its chains in the middle of the night.
Maharashtra Forest Minister Sudhir Mungantiwar stepped in; he called back Shafath Ali Khan and asked senior forest officials, including the head of the wildlife wing A.K. Misra, to station themselves in Pandharkawada until the tigress is captured alive or killed. This prompted further protests by conservationists in Nagpur.
With the Nawab back in action, local tiger conservationists and some forest officials withdrew from the scene in protest. They also objected to Shafath Ali’s approach – he is known to believe the tigress can’t be captured alive, and killing her is the best option.
The Nawab summoned the ace golfer and dog breeder Jyoti Randhawa from Haryana with his two dogs of the Italian Cane Corso breed – presumably to sniff around.
A team of paragliders, drone-operations and trackers was roped in – all in vain. The drones made a lot of noise. The paragliders could not be of any use in the area given the topography and the thick vegetation on the ground.
Other ideas were discarded too – nets, bait, foot patrols.
T1 remained elusive, the villagers on the brink with fear. Nothing happened all through September and first half of October.
Then, a clue popped up. She’s around.
On October 17, a tracking team returns excited: T1 is lurking close to the base camp. They say they sighted her in Sarati village, where T1 killed a young farmer in August 2017, three kilometres from the base camp.
The teams spring into action and rush to the spot. She’s there. The angry tigress, cornered, charges at one team. The sharp shooters drop the idea of using tranquiliser darts and return to the base camp. You can’t fire at a tigress when she’s rushing at you in in attack mode.
But this is good news. T1 has given up her hideout after nearly 45 days. It will now be easier to track her movement. But it’s still difficult and potentially dangerous to get her.
“This is a difficult operation,” says Shafath Ali. “The cubs are not small any more. About a year old, they are big enough to tackle six-seven men at a time.” So the trackers are tackling not one tigress but three tigers.
With Maharashtra forest officials refusing to speak to the press, it is left to Shafath Ali and his team from Hyderabad to reveal bits and pieces about the operation.
“This is too intrusive,” says an angry young bespectacled Range Forest officer, about the TV crew of a Marathi news channel. He does not like the idea of Shafath Ali talking to the press.
The forest officials are handling public pressure and political writ, but clearly they are to blame, says a local wildlife conservationist in Pandharkawada who has withdrawn from the operation after Shafath Ali took over the cudgels. “They allowed the situation to go out of their hands.”
On a big area map hanging by a wooden pole in the base camp, an area demarcated by red lines indicate T1’s movements over the last two years.
“It’s not as plain as it looks,” explains a young guard cooling himself from a trek, “this is undulating terrain, lots of farms, wild weeds, patches of shrub and thick plantation, small rivulets and tanks – it’s tricky.”
She’s changing location every eight hours, moving around only in the night.
On October 21, a villager in Sarati sighted the tigress and her cubs late in the evening. He ran back home in fear. A track team reached the spot. By then, the tigress and her two cubs had disappeared into the darkness.
All through the second half of October, several teams closely tracked T1 and her cubs. From October 25 to 31, two villagers had a close shave – one in Borati, the other in Atmurdi village.
Meanwhile Shafath Ali had to leave for Bihar to attend to a meeting. His son, Asaghar Ali takes over with his team of sharp shooters. Wildlife activists across India continue to issue petitions and calls to save T1. On the ground, things remain tense. The cotton crop is ready for harvesting, but across Ralegaon tehsil farmers remain fearful.
On November 2, several villagers see T1 roaming around Borati, on the smooth tar road to Ralegaon. She’s with her cubs. A patrolling team, along with Asaghar and his associate, rushes to the spot. On November 3, Saturday, Shafath Ali returns to the base camp.
A November 3 statement by the Maharashtra forest department confirms that T1 was shot dead the previous night around 11 p.m. It’s curtains on one of the longest such operations ever in the country.
When the attempt to tranquilise the tigress failed and she charged aggressively at the patrolling team, Asaghar, who was in an open jeep, reportedly pulled the trigger of his rifle in self-defence, the official statement said, killing the tigress in one shot.
T1’s corpse was sent to Gorewada zoo in Nagpur for a postmortem.
A.K. Misra, the PCCF (Wildlife), told reporters that they are chalking out fresh plans to capture alive T1’s two cubs.
Villagers in Ralegaon are relieved, but wildlife activists are preparing to knock on the doors of the Supreme Court to question the way the T1 was killed, and the rules that were violated.
One tigress is dead. But the human-tiger conflict is alive and kicking.
Jaideep Hardikar is a Nagpur-based journalist and writer, and a PARI core team member.