The 150 sq km area in Yavatmal’s Ralegaon taluka, in which Avni operated, is at best a “degraded forest”. There are more than a dozen small villages in this region. Fourteen villagers, aged between 20 and 65 years, were killed by Avni between June 2016 and August 2018. The villagers, needless to say, live in extreme poverty. Their average monthly income does not exceed Rs 1500.
Ralegaon (not to be confused with Ralegan-Siddhi where Anna Hazare lives) is accessible from Pune and Mumbai by train and bus. Not having gone there before, I took a circuitous route that went via Adilabad. I rectified my mistake on my return, travelling to Pune via Amravati.
Perhaps the most tragic of Avni’s killings is that of Satish Kove of Sakhi village, just 20 years old. On that fateful day, he took his cattle for grazing to the fields adjoining his village, when Avni suddenly pounced on him and killed him. His father and uncle were also in the fields at the time. They chased away the beast in shock, compelling it to drop Satish’s body rather than devour it. There were cattle grazing in the fields when the incident happened, but the tigress chose a human being, proving she was a man-eater. Such perverse choices on the part of tigers have also been observed in the Sunderbans.
While Satish’s parents seemed resigned to their fate, his uncle, Manohar Kove, was livid and hostile. Drunk on hooch made from mahua flowers, he asked me, splashing spittle, why I had come to the village when I would be able to do nothing to prevent such tragedies from occurring in the future. “We have reached a point when we wish to commit suicide,” Manohar and other villagers said in despair.
In Vedashi village, it was 65-year-old Gulab Mokashi whom Avni killed around 2.30 in the afternoon. His panic-stricken family conducted an all-night search for him when he did not return home. When they found his body at 8.30 the next morning, miles away from the village, it was fully eaten. “Our father followed the same routine for years, but nothing of this kind ever happened,” Gulab’s son told me. “We had heard of Avni’s attacks but we never thought she would come to our village,” he added.
As in Satish Kove’s case, Gulab Mokashi’s killing too happened in the vicinity of cattle.
Like Gulab Mokashi, Sonabai Waman Ghosle of Borate village, too, was elderly. She was 60. She went to her fields at 7 in the morning to collect jowar. She never returned. When her family found her body in the afternoon, they knew at once that she had been killed by the tigress.
Avni’s last victim was in Vihirgaon village in August this year. Wagho Raut, 60, took his cows for grazing in the morning but did not return for lunch. When his family went in search of him, they actually saw the tigress sitting astride him, ready to tear his body to pieces. They shooed away the predator in the nick of time so that they could perform Wagho’s last rites. Here too, there were cattle nearby in whom the tigress wasn’t interested. She craved human flesh.
Wagho leaves behind a wife and two minor sons. He was the only breadwinner of his family, who are now reduced to dire straits.
Avni wasn’t the only animal responsible for the deaths in Ralegaon. In one case, ironically enough, an elephant that was brought to track Avni down, ran amok and killed a woman.
The state government paid the families of Avni’s victims around Rs 8 lakh as compensation. In some cases, however, as in the case of Ghosle, they offset this money against loans the family had earlier taken. “Why did they have to link the compensation money to the loans?” Ghosle’s aggrieved family asked me.
The cynic in me thought: how long will it take for these villagers, who live below the poverty line, to earn Rs 8 lakh? Like the Vidarbha farmers who commit suicide, it is as if a family member sacrifices himself to a tiger to keep his family alive!
All the villagers I met were unanimous in their view that a boundary wall should be built around Ralegaon to prevent attacks by wild animals. “We can’t step out to water our fields and keep vigil at night because of the fear of wild animals. Wild boars have been destroying our crops but we can do nothing,” the villagers lamented.
The view of city-based conservationists, that human beings have encroached upon tiger territory, angers the villagers. “Our villages have been here for decades,” they said. “We haven’t encroached on any forests.”
While Nawab Shafat Ali Khan and his son Azgar Khan have become the villains in Avni’s killing, the villagers regard them as their saviours. Ghosle’s feisty daughter-in-law is very angry with some of the politicians who were not in favour of killing the tigress. “Tell them to come out of their air-conditioned bungalows and stay with us in the wild before opening their mouths,” she said, spewing venom.
The words of Ghosle’s daughter-in-law set me thinking. Evidently, the protests of women against Avni’s killing outnumber that of men. These women are often eco-feminists who condemn misogyny. But if misogyny is bad, isn’t misanthropy equally deplorable?