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Saved by court once, freed amid concerns, tigress dies of electrocution

The Indian Express
New Delhi
15 Oct 2017

Sometime between 3 and 4 am on Saturday, two-year-old T27-C1 died after coming in contact with an electrified wire put out by a farmer to keep away wild boars.

AFTER five months during which she was ordered dead twice, captured once, renamed, and translocated over 200 km, the end came quietly. Sometime between 3 and 4 am on Saturday, two-year-old T27-C1 died after coming in contact with an electrified wire put out by a farmer to keep away wild boars.

It was less than two days after the Nagpur bench of the Bombay High Court had cleared the killing of the tigress, and a tracking team had been set up comprising forest staffers, Wildlife Institute of India (WII) experts, and sharpshooters Nawab Shaukat Ali and Waseem Jamshed.

Eventually, T27-C1 of Bramhapuri eluded them, but not death, in a saga that encompassed human-tiger conflict, warring officials and experts, and the disputed definition of a maneating tiger.

It was on May 18 that the tigress, belonging to the Bramhapuri divisional forest in Chandrapur district, was said to have made its first kill. The forest area, that sits adjacent to the Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve, has 32 tigers, considered a very healthy population for a non-protected area. There were reports of regular attacks by T27-C1 till June 23, when one more person was killed. Following public outcry from Bramhapuri villages, the same day, Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (Wildlife) A K Mishra ordered that she be shot.

Soon after, tiger lover Jerryl Banait approached the High Court, contending that proper guidelines had not been followed in declaring T27-C1 a maneater. On June 29, the court ordered that the tigress be tranquilised and captured. On July 10, Nawab Shaukat Ali, one of India’s last tiger catchers, captured the tiger. After being kept in a cage for a few days, during which a committee of activists and forest officials discussed her fate, she was declared fit to be released in the wild. T27-C1 was released on July 29, World Tiger Day, in the Bor sanctuary. She was renamed TF-5, radio-collared, and intensive 24X7 monitoring by multiple tracking teams was put in place to ensure she would stay in her natural habitat, and not stray too close to human settlements.

Officials say that after about two months of uneventful stay, the tigress struck again, killing a farmer on September 19, followed by a serious attack on another farmer on September 27. On October 2, she killed a woman in Amravati. On October 4, PCCF Mishra issued his second shoot order, and Banait again went to the HC. The court this time sought evidence to conclude that the attacks were caused by the same tigress.

Accordingly, Mishra issued a revised shoot order on October 9 with exhibits like GPS and VHF (very high frequency) signals from the radio-collar locating the tigress at the spot of the killings, plus panchnamas and photographs of the victims, as well as results of the tiger census showing no other tiger’s presence in the area.

On October 12, the HC upheld the revised order, and teams set out to kill T27-C1. By then, the tigress, after staying put in the Bor sanctuary buffer area for many days, had started moving out. Over the last two-three days, it had returned to the buffer area again, after traversing over 500 km through the sanctuary in Amravati and Nagpur districts. She finally met her end at an agricultural farm near Sindivihiri village in Wardha district.

Banait says he heard about the tigress’s electrocution when he was preparing to board a flight to Delhi to challenge the HC decision in the Supreme Court. “The Forest Department needs to answer why, if they had found the tigress worth shooting dead for being a maneater, did they release it back in the wild? Either of the two decisions was right, both can’t be,” he says.

Calling “the whole manner in which her issue was handled” responsible for her death, Banait adds, “I had never pressed for her release and had no problem with her being caged all her life. I only wanted the capital punishment to be converted to life imprisonment.”

Defending their flip-flop, Mishra says, “The tigress had never displayed menacing behaviour towards humans except in the last 15-odd days. And only one of those attacks, on September 27, was unprovoked. She continued to be shy of humans and had almost settled down. Why she chose to walk out of the sanctuary is something yet to be understood.”

Kishore Rithe, a former member of the National Board for Wildlife and the chief of wildlife NGO Satpuda Foundation, was a member of the special committee set up to decide the tigress’s fate after her capture, and had stressed on her release in the wild. He says he still stands by it. “Her electrocution is no reason to question her release in the wild. It is necessary to do such experiments and learn from them in the context of man-tiger conflicts. You can’t just shoot every tiger in conflict with humans. There are certain rules to be followed, and the same was done. The fact that she had stayed in Bor peacefully for about two months showed that she was coming to terms with life in the wilderness. So what caused her to move out? This question needs to be answered before we accuse her of being a maneater.”

Former PCCF (Wildlife) B Majumdar, on whose order a problem tiger in the Talodhi range of Chandrapur district was shot dead in 2007, had filed an intervention petition in the current case, supporting the October 4 shoot order by Mishra. Blaming her release in the wild again for her death, he says, “I continue to maintain that the decision to release the tigress, based on rather ambivalent recommendations/observations of a committee, was patently wrong. With its history of human attacks… (they) clearly had no choice but to try and trap the animal within as short a time as possible, failing which to have it shot, as the probability of further killings could not be ruled out.”

Forest Minister Sudhir Mungantiwar says the feelings of both sides have to be kept into account. “One thing is clear, you can’t save wildlife without the animals having sympathy of people living in the area. On one side there is people’s anger and on the other side there are NGO concerns. We must take all sides into consideration.”

Promising an SOP “that will eliminate the need for any judicial intervention in such matters”, Mungantiwar adds, “I was of the opinion that the tigress be kept in an open enclosure at the Sanjay Gandhi National Park in Mumbai. But we had to release it in the wild as per HC directive.”

Experts have also expressed shock that the tigress died of electrocution despite the 24X7 monitoring. At any given time, three teams comprising 12 personnel each watched out for her. The distance between them and the tigress varied between 50 and 300 metres.

Says Nitin Desai, Central India Director of the Wildlife Protection Society of India, “If this could happen to an animal that was monitored 24X7, what is the fate of other wild animals? Electrocution by poachers and illegal power fences by farmers remain the biggest challenges before wildlife protection. Such incidents might go up given the deficit monsoon and poor crops.”

Adds Banait, “Last year, the radio-collared iconic tiger Jai had disappeared and is believed dead. This year, his cub Srinivas, who was also radio-collared, was found electrocuted. If this is the level of protection for radio-collared tigers, just imagine what must be happening to other tigers roaming human-dominated landscapes.”

One person though is set to face action over what happened to T27-C1. Says PCCF Mishra, “It’s confirmed that the tigress got electrocuted. The farm owner, Ramkrushna Tekam, 40, is liable for action irrespective of whether the tiger was facing shoot orders.” Tekam is now in custody.