Tigress Avni or T1 with her cub. Photo: Forest Department
- Avni: Inside the Hunt for India’s Deadliest Man-Eater is Nawab Shafath Ali Khan’s account of the killing of a tigress in Yavatmal in 2018.
- The book makes some incisive observations on the wildlife conservation scenario and some of its policies and practices that the establishment would do well to attend and reflect on.
- While Khan is no Jim Corbett as a storyteller, the very fact that he takes on problem wild animals while on foot, in an age in which the professional hunter is but a memory, is commendable.
The 2021 Bollywood thriller Sherni was a power-packed performance by an accomplished cast. Its protagonist, played by Vidya Balan, was a young forest officer while the villain of the piece was a professional – and in the film, a bloodthirsty – hunter named Pintu, played by Sharat Saxena.
Pintu in real life is Nawab Shafath Ali Khan, a scion of the Hyderabad aristocracy and an ace marksman. With more than 40 years of experience tracking ‘problem’ and distressed wild animals on foot, including tigers, leopards and elephants, Khan is perhaps the last of his kind. He is a member of the Bihar State Board of Wildlife and, in his own words, his services are often sought by forest departments after departmental efforts fail to either capture or eliminate an inconvenient wild animal.
This it seems was also the case when on December 13, 2017, Khan and his son Asghar were officially requested by the chief conservator of forests of Yavatmal, Maharashtra, to trap the tigress T1, a.k.a. Avni, who had killed 10 people since June 2016.
Avni: Inside the Hunt for India’s Deadliest Man-Eater is Khan’s version of the Avni saga, published in 2022 by Bloomsbury India. It is a captivating 239-page book, clearly Khan’s attempt at clearing his and his son’s much-maligned names. It is also about other successes and failures that he experienced while tracking wild animals in different parts of India. Perhaps most importantly, it makes some incisive observations on the wildlife conservation scenario and some of its policies and practices that the establishment would do well to attend and reflect on.
In my first wildlife posting, in 1984 as director of the Madhav National Park at Shivpuri, after graduating from the Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun, I had two close brushes with leopards in distress. One was in the very first year, when an adult leopard had entered a villager’s house in Bairad, some 55 km from Shivpuri, and the second was when another leopard had found its way into a godown of a cotton mill within the city of Gwalior.
While we succeeded in enticing the leopard into a trap cage at Bairad and rescued it, the other operation in Gwalior failed when, after our unsuccessful attempts at caging the animal, the local police opened fire and killed the animal when it lunged high and almost caught a policeman keeping vigil at a ventilator that opened into the godown.
My personal feeling after both operations was one of regret. Despite my “trained” tag, I felt awfully inadequate in dealing with both situations. Now, in hindsight, while the times are very different and forest departments have more resources, the departments in different states are still amateurish when it comes to rescuing or putting down a wild animal, especially wild cats (tigers or leopards) and elephants. This is according to Khan’s book.
Not privy to the actual goings on for over two years (2016-2018) when Avni was roaming in some 150 sq km in 26 villages of Yavatmal, I will desist from commenting on facts regarding either Khan’s defence or what Sherni depicted on behalf of the district forest officer (DFO) and other officials.
To be fair to all those involved, there was a lot of merit in what Sherni showed in terms of the systemic patriarchy that the DFO bravely confronted in the movie. And there appears to be some substance in the questions that Khan raises about the forest department’s abilities and the role of non-departmental players like motivated civil society operatives and media persons, when attempts to capture Avni were underway.
According to the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) 2019 guidelines cum standard operating procedure on dealing with big cats (tigers and leopards) that the chief wildlife warden has declared “dangerous to human life”:
“After ‘declaring’ the animal as ‘dangerous to Human Life’, its elimination should be done by a Departmental personnel having the desired proficiency, while providing the fire arm with the appropriate bore size. In case, such expertise is not available within the Department, an expert may be co-opted from the other competent Government Departments”.
When an animal is slated to be killed, after following due process, then just as with a person served with capital punishment, its end needs to be as painless as possible. But unlike in the case of a person, who in India is hung under close supervision, killing a tiger, a leopard or an elephant requires excellent marksmanship, past experience with stalking such animals, and the ability to use a firearm of the appropriate bore – all to ensure the tiger, leopard or elephant is killed as painlessly as possible.
(According to Khan, the .375 Magnum offers the right bore with which to put down a tiger. Assault rifles or even the 7.62 mm SLR that the police department uses are not appropriate.)
But the 2019 NTCA guidelines, based on lessons from the Avni saga, presume a few things. One is that there are enough department personnel who are sharp marksmen and possess sound stalking skills, have access to firearms and ammunition of the appropriate bore, and who are adept at handling them. There is little basis to assume this is true.
Second, the guidelines presume that in case expertise is not available within the forest department, an expert from another department (police, the paramilitary or the military) will have the requisite animal stalking skills, access to and familiarity with firearms of the appropriate bore in forested conditions, where the animal in question might be found.
Since the forest officials of today as well as of my vintage are neither trained nor experts in handling firearms of whatever bore, either during their professional training (barring a week’s exposure to arms training at a firing range) or in the course of their daily duties. So it is farfetched to assume that a department official will have the requisite proficiency, as the NTCA requires, as and when an emergency arises. Similarly, an expert with the desired past experience from another competent government department should be readily available is easier said than found.
Under these circumstances, the guidelines are silent on what officials must do – except wish for the NTCA’s assumptions to hold true. Significantly, the NTCA guidelines provide no room whatsoever for non-departmental personnel, no matter how accomplished or willing they may be.
It is here that Khan’s observation in his book, that “when inexperienced staff shoots a tiger with inappropriate weapons, they often miss the vital organs, which results in a slow, prolonged and painful death for the animal”, rings very true.
It is undeniable that both human and wildlife populations, especially of large mammals like tigers, leopards and elephants, are expanding in the country. To top it off, humans continue to encroach upon areas of wilderness. India is effectively putting together a perfect recipe for enhanced human-animal conflicts and, thus, the possible declaration of more wild animals to be “dangerous to human life” and thus in need of elimination.
Fortunately, over time, many forest departments have established well-trained and well-supplied expert teams, including veterinarians to tranquilise and restrain wild animals in distress. These teams are rushed to areas of concern during emergencies. There is nonetheless a case for forest departments to create departmental ‘crack teams’ composed of people who know their jungle, their arms, their wild animals, their habitats and their habits. In short, they must create a band of “sarkari shikaris” who not only know their jungle and job well but also love the outdoors and the thrill of stalking a wild animal in its range.
Alternatively, different forest departments could prepare a roster and encourage private individuals with guns, valid licences and past participation at competitive shooting events, and who also love the challenges of the outdoors, to take up the one to kill wild animals declared “dangerous to human life”. This may be permitted at their own risk, with the satisfaction of having done a good job in the spirit of service to society at large. But for this, a revision of the NTCA guidelines will be in order.
While Nawab Shafath Ali Khan is no Jim Corbett as a storyteller, the very fact that he like Corbett takes on problem wild animals while on foot, in an age in which the professional hunter is but a memory, is commendable. His tale and his observations deserve a serious read – if nothing else but for his valour exhibited on behalf of the officials in India’s jungles.
Manoj Misra is a former member of the Indian Forest Service.
Note: This article was edited at 1:03 pm on August 26, 2022, to clarify that according to Khan, assault rifles don’t have the right bore to kill tigers.