A female tiger suspected of killing 13 people has become a flashpoint between authorities who refuse to rule out shooting and activists who say efforts must be made to capture the trio alive.

Animal rights activists in India are racing against time to save a female tiger and her two cubs. The carnivores have reportedly killed a dozen villagers in the western state of Maharashtra, triggering a frenzied search for the six-year-old cat. 

Nicknamed Avni or T-1, the tigress has evaded capture for months in the forested region around the town of Pandharkawada, where the deaths have been reported. She has two nine-month-old cubs. 

Authorities say they have used trained elephants, drones, sophisticated cameras and hundreds of men to sweep through the bushy area without any success. 

They now plan to use Calvin Klein's Obsession for Men cologne to lure the animal to a trap. The perfume has a chemical called cicerone, which comes from the glands of cat-like mammal civet, and has known to have worked in trapping jaguars and leopards before. 

Some officials have dubbed the tigress a “man-eater” despite lack of evidence to prove she had actually attacked humans, says Dr Prayag H S, a wildlife activist, who has experimented with the cologne in India.

 “There is no concrete scientific evidence that suggests all those kills are result of T-1,” he told TRT World

This picture from the early 1900s shows a British colonial hunting party in India where thousands of tigers were killed during the Raj.
This picture from the early 1900s shows a British colonial hunting party in India where thousands of tigers were killed during the Raj. (Getty Images)

Big question mark 

India is home to 2,200 tigers, which make up around 60 percent of the world’s total tiger population. 

It goes to New Delhi’s credit that it has been able to increase the dwindling tiger population in the last 10 years by employing better conservation measures.

But that’s still nothing compared to 100,000 tigers that roamed the jungles at the turn of the 20th century, says Ajay Dubey, a wildlife conservationist, who had petitioned the Indian Supreme Court to stop Avni’s hunt. 

 “I’m not happy with the preservation efforts or growth in numbers because we have lost more tigers than we have been able to save.” 

The Supreme Court last month ruled that it cannot interfere to stop forest rangers from killing the tigress if they fail to capture it. 

Dubey told TRT World that the judgement has erroneously been interpreted as a green signal to shoot the animal. 

“There’s a wrong perception going around that the Supreme Court has given orders to shoot it. The court upheld the Wildlife Protection Act, which clearly states that rangers must make every effort to tranquilise it and try to capture it first.” 

The first reports of T-1’s attacks emerged in 2016, but she attracted wide attention in August when the deaths of three people sparked panic among local villagers. 

Prayag says some officials were quick to declare T-1 a man-eater and media hyped that up into a big scare even as there were many inconsistencies in the investigation. 

“They haven’t taken DNA samples; no veterinary expert was involved when postmortem of the bodies was done, and no one has actually seen the tigress attacking a human.”

Sometimes wild cats like this leopard which attacked villagers in West Bengal have to come out of the jungles in search of food.
Sometimes wild cats like this leopard which attacked villagers in West Bengal have to come out of the jungles in search of food. (AP Archive)

According to the BBC, a woman saw her husband being dragged by a tiger, but it remains unclear if it was T-1. 

There are other animals, including a male tiger, who might have fathered the cubs with T-1, and a leopard in the same vicinity, says Prayag. 

What  bothers him the most is authorities ruling out the possibility of the tigress feeding on dead people. 

“My question is why can’t this happen that the person has already been murdered and then the tiger accidentally came across the carcass?” 

When big cats become man-eaters 

One of the most famous cases of big cats killing humans is the Tsavo lions, who killed between 35 and 135 people in 1898 during construction of a rail track in Kenya.

The world renowned man-eating Tsavo lions are seen stuffed and on display at Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History.
The world renowned man-eating Tsavo lions are seen stuffed and on display at Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History. (AP Archive)

The incident popularised in the 1996 Hollywood movie, The Ghost and the Darkness, captivated researchers for more than a century and many thought that the two lions had developed a taste for human flesh. 

But a study of the lions’ fossils conducted last year found that they might have been hunting people because they were injured and couldn’t kill their natural prey such as zebras.  

Something similar had also happened in India in the past, says Bruce Patterson, the co-author of the study and curator at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago.

 Jim Corbett, the famous hunter who put down about a dozen man-eating tigers and leopards in colonial India, made similar observations, he says. 

“He repeatedly found that these animals were critically injured. They had broken teeth or claws, porcupine quills embedded in their flesh that made it impossible for them to capture and eat normal prey,” Patterson told TRT World

It goes to New Delhi's credit that it took steps to increase the tiger population by cracking down hard on poachers and spending more resources on tiger reservations.
It goes to New Delhi's credit that it took steps to increase the tiger population by cracking down hard on poachers and spending more resources on tiger reservations. (AP Archive)

Experts say deforestation is another reason, which leads wild animals to come in contact with villagers. India has 50 tiger reserves spread over an area of 200,000 sq km, but many of the tigers live outside the reserves. 

“These are cats that live in an increasingly human-dominated world where natural prey is in lower and lower density,” says Patterson. 

“And at some point – especially the live stock – becomes [an] attractive target for the big cats even though they realise that it puts them into an antagonistic position with the people.” 

Enter the Shikari

The involvement of India’s most famous hunter, Nawab Shafath Ali Khan, in search of T-1 has prompted protests by animal rights activists who have also launched a campaign #LetAvniLive on Twitter. 

Khan, who has  called T-1 a “psycho” and “terrorist and murderer” is known to have killed dozens of tigers and elephants. He believes wild animals venturing out of the reserves have become a threat to villagers. 

“He thinks of himself as modern-day Jim Corbett. He’s instigating the people just to highlight his own name,” says Prayag, the wildlife activist.

Tigers are celebrated in local Indian culture and considered sacred by many locals in Pandharkawada.
Tigers are celebrated in local Indian culture and considered sacred by many locals in Pandharkawada. (AP Archive)

TRT World wasn’t able to get in touch with Khan despite repeated attempts. 

Prayag says tigers are sacred in Hindu religious tradition, and local villagers in Pandharkawada themselves have requested that the tigress must not be killed. 

“If villagers felt so threatened than they would have poisoned it by now. But we haven’t seen that happening,” he said, referring to a common practice to stop wild animals from coming over the farmlands. 

What promoted intense interest in T-1’s fate could be related to humans’ perceived sense of their superiority, says Patterson. 

“We are not accustomed to becoming part of the food chain. It’s a shock for some people to even contemplate that fact,” he says. 

“But it would be a tragedy to euthanise a female tiger in her prime.”

Source: TRT World