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Hunters of Man-Eating Tigress Can Shoot to Kill, Indian Court Rules

Category: Asia,World

NEW DELHI — In India, you can’t just shoot a tiger.

Even if it’s a man-eater, and even if you’re working for a government agency, many strict requirements must be met before one of the endangered animals can legally be killed.

Armed with those regulations, wildlife advocates on Tuesday entered India’s Supreme Court in hopes of saving a female tiger known as T-1, who has evaded capture four times and is believed to have killed 13 people.

The 5-year-old tigress has been stalking a scruffy patch of central India for more than two years, mauling herders and farmers from poor villages, along with cows and horses.

She dragged some of her victims out of cotton fields by the neck and left them in shreds. Three people were killed in August, villagers are terrified and pressure is rising for the authorities to kill the creature. The hunt could begin this week.

Forest rangers have been unequivocal: T-1 is a man-eater.

But wildlife advocates say she has killed only in self-defense, and they pleaded before a packed courtroom on Tuesday for the justices to spare her life — to no avail.

“All the people killed have been killed in the forest,” Anand Grover, a lawyer for the wildlife advocates, told the justices.

“You go into that area on your own risk,” he added. “How can you hold the tiger responsible?”

Forestry officials passed an order last week saying they preferred to capture the tigress, but they would shoot to kill if that proved impossible. Indian wildlife advocates frequently challenge orders like these in court, often leading to hearings that are essentially mini-trials on the tiger’s guilt or innocence.

At Tuesday’s hearing, the government said there were no other suspects. T-1 was the only tiger roaming around the area at the time of each killing.

A lawyer for the government pointed to the forensic evidence, saying that camera traps, pugmarks (tiger footprints), eyewitness accounts and DNA tests (taken from saliva left on the victims’ wounds) linked T-1 to several deaths, possibly more than a dozen.

The tigress has also consumed human flesh, the lawyers said — an important criterion. As India’s official guidelines put it: “A differentiation should be made between ‘human kill’ due to chance encounters and ‘habituated man-eaters.’”

“No other animal could have consumed these people,” said Kartik Shukul, the government lawyer. “There aren’t even any leopards in the area.”

The activists tried to argue that the tigress hadn’t eaten all of her victims, and that the villagers were at fault for venturing into her territory in the first place. The activists made those same arguments in a state court last week and lost. In a last-ditch effort, they appealed to the Supreme Court.

A two-judge panel listened to the back-and-forth for a half-hour — much more time than they spent on many other cases Tuesday. Then they upheld the forestry officials’ plan, which allows them kill T-1 if a concerted effort to capture her fails.

The hope is to bait her with a chunk of fresh buffalo meat, tranquilize her and then put her in a zoo. Forest rangers are closing in, with teams of sharpshooters, veterinarians and specially trained elephants converging on the area in the eastern part of Maharashtra state where she has been hunting.

The rangers plan to ride the elephants’ backs into the bush (elephants are better for the job than 4X4 trucks, they say), in a military-style operation they expect to begin this week.

But there are a few complications.

For starters, it’s much harder to tranquilize a tiger than to kill it. The range of a tranquilizing dart gun is only 25 meters, experts said, — nothing compared to the 300 meters from which a high-powered bullet can be effectively fired.

Also, it’s the end of the monsoon season. That means T-1’s area is now lush and green; actually, it’s totally overgrown, maybe even too much so for the elephants. In previous capture operations, the tigress stole into thickets of lantana bushes and vanished.

And T-1 is a mother. In the middle of her killing spree, she gave birth to two fuzzy cubs. The forestry department’s plan calls for the cubs, around 9 months old, to be tranquilized, not killed.

“The tigress has just been trying to protect her cubs,” said Sarita Subramaniam, one of the activists who left the Supreme Court visibly disappointed Tuesday afternoon. “As a mother, I would do the same thing. I’d kill anyone who enters my home.”

“When it comes to man-animal conflict,” she fumed, “it’s all about humans, humans, humans.”

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