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How Avni, the real Sherni, highlighted the complex nature of tiger conservation in India

How Avni, the real Sherni, highlighted the complex nature of tiger conservation in India

On July 29, 2019, Prime Minister Narendra Modi released the All India Tiger Estimation Report 2018. He lauded the conservation efforts and noted that the tiger population in India stood at 2,967. India, he declared, “is one of the world’s biggest and most secure habitats”. Only 15 years ago, such a statement would have been unimaginable, given the extinction of tigers in the Sariska Tiger Reserve in Rajasthan in 2004.

Following the Sariska debacle, the government of India took several steps to conserve the tiger population. The Wildlife Institute of India carried out a country-level tiger census to survey tiger habitats, estimate the tigers’ population, and assess their prey and habitats. India’s growing economy and the stricter wildlife protection laws have led to an increase in the tiger population. The 2018 figure of 2,967 was the culmination of those efforts, doubling the total from 1,411 in 2006 to 2,967 in 2018.

While tiger protection falls under one of the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, the government of India’s efforts to conserve tigers and minimise conflicts with people have, in truth, provided mixed results. Only nine months before this report was released, a tigress named Avni was shot dead because she had become dangerous to the residents of Pandherwada in Maharashtra, India. One of the serious consequences of wildlife conservation is the spillover effect resulting in the rise of human-wildlife conflicts, which the newly-released Hindi film Sherni (2021) depicts.

Dealing with the consequences of legal protection to nature and analysing human-wildlife conflicts in heavily populated countries such as India are highly challenging. One of the major reasons is the differing perspectives of human-animal relationships in different cultural settings across the country. In India, the relationship between humans and other non-humans have deep and complex meanings. In multicultural/caste/tribe societies, there are various ways in which people relate to animals very differently.

What happens to an animal when it becomes problematic for humans, like it happened in the case of Tigress Avni? The movie Sherni is broadly based on the story of this tigress and is an excellent example to discuss, so that we may understand the nature of tiger capture operations and how human-tiger conflicts are resolved on the ground amidst human habitations of poor rural Indians.

Complexities of conservation

Avni or T1, a tigress, rose to fame during 2017-’18 and was finally shot in November 2018. Avni reportedly killed 13 persons in Pandharkawada of Maharashtra state. After trying to capture the animal, the government officials called the professional shooters to “solve” the problem. Wildlife activists approached the Supreme Court to prevent the shooting of this animal, but the court did not accept their appeal. The tigress was labelled a “man-eater”, a term that legally permits the animal’s capture.

The events that followed while searching for Anvi show a complex and chaotic picture of wildlife conservation. The case of Avni, I argue, shows the entangled messiness of wildlife conservation in India. Such cases involve various actors, multiple ways of understanding the conflict, and different ways of knowing the world. Let me analyse the controversy surrounding the death of the tigress and the responses from various groups to highlight the complexities of wildlife conservation and possible challenges for wildlife conservation.

Instead of being captured alive, Avni was shot dead, leading to candlelight marches in Mumbai and Delhi. Environmental activists and animal lovers organised massive protests and campaigns. One of the protestors stood with a banner of a tiger wrapped in the Indian national flag. One banner said, “This is the time for every earth citizen to ask, ‘Why didn’t we #Letavnilive?’”. Another poster read, “Justice for Avni”. For these campaigners, she had become more than a tiger. Avni was not just an animal but also a mother of two cubs, and became “almost a human”.

In addition, animals with human names evoke a strong sense of emotional attachment. Avni, in Hindi, means earth. Supporters of Avni gathered on the street to show their love for her, and condolences poured in from everywhere. Their concerns clashed directly with the claims of the forest department that Avni was a “man-eater” and must be tranquilised or restrained to prevent more human deaths.

Avni’s death led to severe criticism of the forest department. The department, by all means, tried to capture the tigress. They used the latest technology in an aggressive militaristic style to capture the tiger. Camera traps, shooters with tranquilising guns, and patrols in jeeps and on elephant back made this search complex. A series of articles on this story was published in The New York Times.

The controversial figure in this drama was the famous or infamous shooter, Nawab Shafath Ali Khan, who was called in to tranquilise the tiger. The invitation of this shooter with a chequered history by the forest department also caused concern among animal rights groups. After a long search, the tiger was shot dead by his son, adding to further criticism of involving professional shooters.

Animal Rights activists called the shooting of Avni a “coldblooded murder”. Using the notion of animal welfare, they argued for a humane approach. Villagers in Pandharkawada, however, felt relieved to know that the tigress was killed and celebrated the death of the tiger with firecrackers and sweets. They were the real “victims” of Avni and paid a huge cost for sharing space with wild animals.

Villagers also participated in the search for the tiger and went patrolling, carrying torches and bamboo sticks. While villagers celebrated the death of Avni, in another location close by, a farmer built a shrine and dedicated it to another tiger that was electrocuted to death. People who live close to wild animals often have contradictory relations with animals.

The body of the man-eating tigress Avni is wheeled into the post-mortem room at the Gorewada Rescue Centre in Nagpur on November 3, 2018. Credit: AFP

Conservation of tigers and other charismatic species evoke emotions at various levels. For the state, it is a national symbol, and for ecological science, it is an endangered species under threat of becoming extinct. Villagers considered tigers as a pest or as vermin, but for the city dwellers, Avni was a nonhuman person and expressed sympathy. Wildlife biologists see Avni as one of the members of an endangered species and feared her loss may make the tiger population further vulnerable. While tigers enjoy a high degree of protection in India, in the case of Avni, some villagers saw her as a dangerous pest.

The shooter in a television interview called the tigress a “terrorist” that had killed people. But for conservationists, a tiger trespassing in human habitation increases human-wildlife conflicts, resulting in fatal attacks on humans, as happened in this case. People related to the tigress and the incident in a range of different ways.

Once considered a “devilish brute” and then a “large hearted gentleman” during the colonial era, according to Mahesh Rangarajan, a wildlife historian, the rise in the status of tigers to the National Animal of India is remarkable. This makeover of the image of the tiger points to a transition in the relationship of humans and animals in India, especially with large carnivores. The case of Avni is not unique.

In India and other developing nations, the risk of getting trapped between human rights and nonhuman rights cannot be avoided. Endangered species are often privileged over poor, marginalised people. Some people or communities are asked to pay the price of tiger survival. Close to 26% of Indians live below the poverty line in rural areas and in urban areas, around 14%. India’s most vulnerable adivasis, Dalits and other indigenous peoples are dependent on forest resources and those who live close to tiger reserves are further marginalised. It is not easy to discuss conservation issues without addressing people’s basic living conditions under extreme poverty.

The inherent inequalities embedded in socio-economic and political processes have been aggravated by “save the animal” campaigns leading to “double marginalisation” of vulnerable groups, who have raised concerns about social justice and social equity in forest and wildlife conservation, says conservationist Ashish Kothari. Local communities question why tigers are more important than their lives and why they have to sacrifice their lives and land for wild animals.

Avni’s case demonstrates that some human communities are still vulnerable to tigers. The film Sherni grippingly exposed the ground reality of how human-tiger conflicts are solved. And Avni, the real Sherni, helped us understand the numerous complexities of tiger conservation in India.

Ambika Aiyadurai teaches anthropology and the environment at IIT-Gandhinagar. She is the author of Tigers Are Our brothers: Anthropology of Wildlife Conservation in Northeast India.

This is an excerpt from a research article titled The implications of legal personhood to nonhumans: Insights from India’s tiger conservation from Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment.

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