Tigress Avni (T1) case: No question of my resigning, says Forest Minister Sudhir Mungantiwar
mid-day speaks to Forest Minister Sudhir Mungantiwar about tigress T1's shooting, and allegations levelled against him by Maneka Gandhi
State Forest Minister Sudhir Mungantiwar, who has found himself in the middle of a roiling controversy over the killing of tigress T1 in Yavatmal, fielded questions by mid-day on the issue.
The minister explained that the procedures laid down by the Supreme Court for the operation were followed to the T and hence there was no question of him resigning. Taking potshots at Union Minister Maneka Gandhi, who had questioned the manner in which the entire operation was carried out, Mungantiwar said, "She has alleged that I gave the order to kill three tigers during my tenure, but I think she lacks knowledge on the issue.
A minister does not have power to give any orders regarding shooting and tranquilising. It is the chief wildlife warden of the state who gives the orders. During my tenure, only one tiger was shot. I hail from Chandrapur, which has one of the highest number of tigers, so I am aware of the ground realities and wildlife."
He also questioned why Gandhi didn't object when the same shooter, Shafat Ali Khan, was called to Pilibhit, Uttar Pradesh, in 2009. "In the 2009, he had gone to Pilibhit and killed a tiger responsible for conflict. Why didn't she object [then]?"
Responding to Gandhi's allegations of forest land being allotted for a cement factory, he said that location was 60 km away from the spot where the tigress was shot. "The earlier government had taken the decision [to allot the land], so blaming us for this is wrong. Now some people are saying that we want to give the land for mining, and so tigress was killed. But there is no truth in these allegations."
The forest minister added that he had received support across parties. Excerpts:
Union Minister Maneka Gandhi believes you have lost moral authority to continue as forest minister. Dharnas are being held to protest T1's killing, and international opinion seems to favour protesters. Will you resign?
There is no question of resigning, because the entire operation was based on the instructions of the Supreme Court, and we have followed all the protocols. Those who are protesting against the killing of the man-eater tigress T1 are the ones who are not aware of the situation at ground zero. The villagers, who were living in fear, have supported the decision. For conservation, what matters is support from the communities who share their space with the big cats. The Forest Department has implemented various schemes in the area [like providing gas cylinders to the villagers] to reduce the dependence of local communities on the forest, so how can they say that we are against tigers?
Minister Gandhi told mid-day that the Maharashtra government's claim of having planted 1 crore trees is a lie. That mixed forests cannot be replaced by commercial saplings.
She should provide us with proof if she thinks it's fraud. The entire drive was successful and had participation from various stakeholders, including various zilla parishads, grampanchayats, various institutions. Does she wants to say that all these stakeholders are [involved in] fraud? We have a command centre where all records about the saplings are maintained. Anyone can check it.
Why has Asghar Ali Khan [T1's shooter] not submitted his weapon for ballistic test?
All these technical things will be discussed in front of the committee, and it was solely for this reason that the committee was set up.
Why was scientist Bilal Habib (involved in the controversy over the radio collaring of missing tiger Jai) included in the state-appointed inquiry committee at the last minute?
An independent committee has been formed under the NTCA, so those who do not have faith in our committee should wait for the NTCA report.
The post-mortem report did not indicate human remains in the abdomen, typically associated with a man-eater.
The activists who had approached the Supreme Court had raised these questions in court, and we have submitted our reply along with evidence, including DNA samples, pugmarks, camera trap images and hair samples. Based on this, the court allowed us to carry out the operation. The search for the cubs is in progress and our teams are taking the best possible efforts.
Environment activists view the 53-day hunt and eventual shooting of the tigress as a failure. Would you agree that Maharashtra needs to invest in training staff to mitigate man-animal conflict?
It would be wrong to say that we don't have any infrastructure, because in the past, our forest department, with the help of veterinarians, have successfully rescued many tigers and leopards. The people opposed to the involvement of shooter Khan are not talking about other governments, including Bihar, that have appointed him as an advisor to deal with man-animal conflict. Time to time, efforts are taken to improve the capacity of the forest department. We will try and implement suggestions in the best possible way.
She was going to be captured alive
A confidential report (mid-day has a copy) submitted to the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) by a veterinarian who was part of the operation, points out that the tigress had come to the spot where it was killed only because vets had lured her there with the intention of capturing her alive, but this opportunity was used by the shooter to allegedly kill the tigress instead. Meanwhile on Tuesday, the NTCA committee, instituted to inquire into the death of T1, visited Pandharkawda division and recorded the statements of those involved in the operation including Mukbir Shaikh - a forest department employee who allegedly fired the dart on the tigress before she was supposedly shot at by Asghar, Shafat Ali Khan's son.
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