The Supreme Court on Wednesday rejected an appeal from two activists who argued the rangers lacked the “requisite expertise” to capture the animal, dubbed “T1.”
Indian courts have grappled with multiple so-called “man-eaters” in recent years, in cases that pit conservationists against villagers who fear for their lives. It’s illegal to attempt to kill an endangered tiger in India, except in self-defence or with specific permission under the Wildlife Protection Act. Offenders face a minimum sentence of three years in prison — unless the tiger is deemed a man-eater by the court.
“We are doing everything we can to save T1 and her family because they are innocent and vital to our ecosystem,” petitioner Ajay Dubey told BBC News before Wednesday’s ruling. Dubey has launched several appeals in the past to protect the lives of tigers that come into conflict with humans.
T1, a five-year-old female, is suspected of killing 13 people over two years near Pandharkawada, a town in the western state of Maharashtra. Three of its victims were recorded last month, forest officials said.
Forest rangers say they’ll try to tranquilize the tiger first, but the Supreme Court ruling gives them a lethal option if they fail to capture it.
“I don’t want to kill this beautiful animal,” K M Abharna, a top forestry official in Pandharkawada, told the New York Times. “But there’s a hell of a lot of political pressure and a hell of a lot of public pressure.”
India is home to approximately 60 per cent of the world’s endangered Bengal tigers. Their numbers were in rapid decline for decades, but India turned that trend around by founding the National Tiger Conservation Authority in 2006. The tiger population has grown from 1,411 in 2006 to 2,226 in 2014, according to the latest census.
The booming tiger population has occasionally brought the animals into conflict with the 1.3 billion humans who live in India.
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The Indian government estimates an average of one person died per day in the country due to human-animal conflict between 2014 and 2017. More than 1,000 deaths were attributed to elephants, while tigers accounted for 113 recorded deaths over that three-year period.
“Conflict is already one of the biggest conservation challenges,” Belinda Wright, founder of the Wildlife Protection Society of India, previously told the Associated Press.
“In India, it is particularly acute because of the high human population.”
Seventy-five tigers have died in India this year, including 22 killed by poachers, according to the WPSI. The non-government organization says 116 died in all of 2017.
The courts have occasionally been asked to rule on cases where a tiger is deemed an ongoing threat to humans.
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In the Maharashtra case, forestry officials asked for permission to kill the tiger in January. Activists blocked the move in court, and the tiger gave birth to two cubs while the court battle played out. A male tiger, dubbed “T2,” is also said to live in the area.
Abharna said her forestry team has tried and failed to capture T1 on four occasions.
“She’s very wild,” Abharna said. “And she’s very clever.”
Experts used DNA evidence, cameras and eyewitness reports to link T1 to at least 13 killings around the rural town, according to local media reports. Victims were found maimed, mauled and dismembered around the area where the tiger is said to live.
“Just kill it,” said Rashika Vishal, whose father was killed by T1. “There’s nothing beautiful about this animal,” she told the New York Times.
“It ate my father and we need to kill it before it kills someone else.”
A state court issued shoot-to-kill orders against another man-eater in October of 2017, after the two-year-old female was blamed for four deaths. The hunt lasted two days before the tiger, dubbed “Kala,” ran into an electric fence and died.
Another tiger was shot dead in Kerala in 2015, after killing two people and attacking a third.
Man-eating tigers in India occasionally come to be known by dramatic names such as the Tigress of Moradabad, the Man-eater of Bhumashankar and Tara of Dudhwa National Park.
The Champawat Tiger remains the most renowned man-eater of all. The animal is said to have killed 436 people in Nepal and India in the early 1900s, although that number is unverified.
—With files from the Associated Press