Wildlife in India has been in a state of historic crisis since the time of the Mughals. And killing tigers, who were then considered as ‘Merciless Blood Sucking Beasts’ as the biggest trophy. Emperor Jalal-ud-Din Muhammad Akbar of the Mughal dynasty, enjoyed hunting as a sport, and the big game. His reign gave rise to trophy hunting or shikar in India. Paintings from the period depict Mongol, Rajput, Turk and Afghan nobilities hunting on elephants or horsebacks. These outings were considered exotic and heroic— tigers being the ultimate trophies.
The British were no different, staging elaborate hunts to showcase their wealth, masculinity and honor. After ascending the throne in 1911, King George V and his aides traveled north to Nepal, slaying 39 tigers in 10 days. Colonel Geoffrey Nightingale shot more than 300 tigers in India. In less than 50 years of our existence, from 1875 to 1925; we managed to kill more than 80,000 tigers in the country. And while most killings were trophy hunts, some considered tigers as vermin, and were systematically erased and ‘exterminated’ with incentives from the government.
After India’s independence, killing tigers for sport escalated, with hunters from around the world coming to India for a guaranteed trophy- advertised by the Indian travel industry. Because the biggest animals made the best trophies, the largest, strongest cats disappeared from the gene pool. By 1971, when hunting was outlawed by the Indian Government with the Wildlife Protection Act coming into play, we had already killed thousands of tigers in the country.
Illegal land encroachments due to over-population, demand of tiger skin and bones for beauty and medicine and illegal hunting practices for entertainment reduced the tiger population in India to 1800 by the year 1971. The condition was such, that there were assumptions of tigers getting extinct by the end of the year 2000.
To protect tigers in the country, “Project Tiger” was launched in the year 1973, which still stands as one of the most comprehensive project to protect tigers across the country. Today, we have less than 2500 tigers across the country, which is more than 50% of the total tiger population across the world.
In the recent years, special focus is being given to tiger conservation, with several organisations like WWF, WPSI (Wildlife Protection Society of India, WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society) and others working towards protecting the endangered species. But have these efforts by conservationists and animal lovers stopped the bureaucrats and the politicians to impose their will? Royalty then and supremacy now has swapped positions, and tigers seem to stand no chance in a world dominated by humans.
Recently, Avni-a tiger (T1) in the forests of Yavatmal in Maharashtra was hunted and shot dead on the claims of her being a man eater. According to locals and the forest officials of Maharashtra, she was accused of killing and devouring 13 human beings in the past year-and-a-half. Many assert that there was no proof of Avni killing those 13 people in the village, and the shoot to kill order was given to free up the land from tigers, so as to aid industrialists to start work in the area. A hunter, Nawab Shafath Ali Khan, was given the task to tranquilize or kill the tigress Avni, a mother of 2 10 month old cubs. Post mortem reports have revealed that no attempts were made to capture the animal, and she was directly shot after several months of search.
In order to protect Avni from a torturous death, there was a loud uproar on social media with #LetAvniLive and on-ground with several marches in major cities across the country. There was an appeal to the President and the Prime Minister of our country to save the tigress, but no efforts were made by the government or the forest officials of Maharashtra to capture Avni alive.
Avni’s death is a big question mark on the conservation efforts the government is making to protect these endangered species. The highest court in the country upheld the order to shoot the tigress, inspite of several attempts by celebrities, media and animal activists to stop Avni’s death. It was not just the death of Avni, but a death of democracy, and our efforts of conservation of the little left wildlife in the country.
Next in line is a leopard, who is labeled a man-eater in Bageshwar district of Uttrakhand, and private shooters are being called for the killing of the cat. These cases also raise a question as to why private hunters and shooters are appointed when India's forest departments have nearly 90,000 workers on their rolls, who are trained with tranquilizing guns to prevent such inhumane killing of an animal.
These are just some examples of the many, where human greed has been the cause of destruction in the lives of animals. We continue to grow and encroach their land, leaving them to live in only about 10% of India's total potential tiger habitat of 300,000 sq km (115,830 sq miles). Animal density in many of these forest areas is high, and surplus tigers sometimes venture outside for food. Poachers have gained from the conflict by killing tigers and bribing villagers to set up traps.
What we need from the government is the expansion of reserved land for animals, and an increased awareness on the issues which pertain to the extinction of tigers across the world Stricter forest administration is required to prevent poaching of not just tigers, but all other animals for their skin, tusks, horns and bones.