At least 13 deaths in two years, maybe even 15. Many cattle killed and devoured. All within a 50- square kilometre area in Yavatmal, a district infamous for farmers’ suicides and agrarian distress. Until last week, a tigress roaming around with her two cubs in Ralegaon tehsil in Vidarbha had created panic among villagers and forest officials. Farming operations were affected in almost 50 villages. Farm labourers were unwilling to go to the fields alone or would fearfully go in groups.
“Ticha bandobast kara” (“Fix the tigress”), was a common refrain.
The growing anger and public pressure had left forest officials in a tizzy, desperate to capture or kill the tigress – called T1 or Avni ('Earth'). It turned into a complex and daunting operation, involving some 200 forest guards, trackers, sharp shooters, top officials of the Maharashtra Forest Department, and scores of experts from central India. All camping for a round-the-clock operation that ended with the killing of T1 on November 2. (See In tigress T1 territory: chronicle of a killing)
By then – starting from mid-2016 – the tigress had killed many. Who were her unsuspecting victims over these two years?
One: Sonabai Ghosale, 70, from the Pardhi Nomadic Tribe; Borati village, June 1, 2016
Sonabai was T1’s first victim. On the morning of June 1, 2016, she had gone to her fields to collect green shoots for her goats. “I will finish this quickly and return,” she told her ailing husband Wamanrao (who has since died), their elder son Subhash says.
That was her daily routine. Get up early. Finish her work at home, then go to the fields to bring back green shoots. But that day, Sonabai did not return.
“He told us in the afternoon that she hasn’t yet returned from the field,” Subhash recalls, sitting in the thatched porch of their two-room hut in Borati. “I sent a boy to look for her, but he came back to tell us that she was not to be seen, only her plastic water bottle was there.” So Subhash and a couple of others went to the fields.
They saw marks in the dry ground at one corner of their five-acre farm where they grow cotton, tur and jowar – as if someone had been dragged. “We followed the marks and found her mauled body 500 metres from the field in the forest patch,” recalls Subhash. “We were shocked.”
T1 – locally also called Avni – is believed to have come to this area around March 2016 A few had reported seeing her, but until Sonabai was killed, not many knew of the presence of a tiger in their midst. She is suspected to have ventured into this area – in the middle of Ralegaon tehsil – from the Tipeshwar Wildlife Sanctuary around 50 kilometres to the west in Yavatmal district. Those who have tracked her movements say she may have arrived here and made it her territory sometime in 2014. In December 2017, she delivered two cubs, a male and a female.
Sonabai’s family has received a compensation of Rs. 10 lakhs from the Maharashtra Forest Department.
Since then, many people I spoke to in Ralegaon tehsil have described how the tigress “sucks the blood out of her prey” by clutching a victim by his/her neck.
Two: Gajanan Pawar, 40, from the Kunbi OBC community; Sarati village, August 25, 2017
Indukalabai Pawar is alone at home when we reach there. On August 25, 2017, her younger son, Gajanan, 40, was killed by T1. He was on their farm, adjoining the shrub forests in Sarati, a village between Loni and Borati villages. That afternoon, the tigress came from behind and pounced on him. Th, villagers found his body lying in a bush 500 metres into the forest.
“My husband died four months ago worried about Gajanan’s two young daughters,” says Indukalabai. Her daughter-in-law Mangala has moved back to her parents’ home in a village in Wardha district. “She’s so fearful that she does not want to stay here until the tigress is captured or killed,” Indukalabai says.
In Sarati, since this episode, the villagers keep a night vigil. Some of the youths have joined, on daily wages, the forest department’s operation to capture Avni. “There’s a problem finding labourers to pick cotton; no one wants to go to the fields out of fear,” says Ravindra Thakre, a young villager and stringer for the Marathi daily Deshonnati.
Indukalabai’s older son Vishnu tills the family’s 15-acre land. He grows cotton and soyabean and some wheat during the rabi season.
Gajanan must have been stunned by the tigress that came from behind while he worked his farm, his mother says, extremely angry and agitated. “I lost my son to the tigress that came from nowhere. The forest department must kill her, only then will we be able to live a normal life again.”
Three: Ramaji Shendre, 68, from the Gond Gowari tribe; Loni village, January 27, 2018
Kalabai is still rattled by the memories of that chilly evening in January this year. Her husband Ramaji, 70, had just lit a campfire on their two-acre farm to keep wild-boars and nilgai away from their standing rabi wheat crop. Kalabai was picking cotton at the other end of their farm. Suddenly, she heard a noise and a tigress pouncing on her husband from behind. T1 had emerged from the bushes and caught hold of Ramaji by his neck. He was dead in an instant, Kalabai says.
Ramaji would take care of the farm, while his sons worked as labourers on others’ fields. “Both of us have farmed every single day of our life since we got married,” Kalabai says. “It was our life.” Now, she has stopped going to the farm, she says. “Mala dhadki bharte [I feel terrified].”
Sitting on a chair in her hut, her husband’s framed photo hanging on the wall, Kalabai is at a loss for words, clearly in pain, speaking amid agonised sobs and pauses. “I ran towards a mound trembling in fear, shouting for help,” she says. She looks at the photo and says, “He would not have imagined this is how he would die.”
The tigress dragged Ramaji’s body through the farm even as Kalabai ran to an upper area to save herself.
Another villager, Babarao Wathode, 56, who was with his cattle nearby. When he saw T1 holding Ramaji by the neck, he shouted and threw a stick at her, he says. The tigress stared at him, picked up the body again and walked away. Wathode says he chased T1 but the tigress left the body and vanished into the forest only when a truck came by suddenly.
Ramaji’s son Narayan, who is visually impaired, has now got a job as a guard with the forest department to keep vigil and accompany the shepherds and herders of his village when they take the cattle for grazing. Narayan’s elder son Sagar has dropped out of school to help his father on their farm and with his job as a guard, Kalabai tells us when we visit her home on October 12.
Four: Gulabrao Mokashe, 65, from the Gond Adivasi community; Vedshi village, August 5, 2018
His elder brother Natthuji kept asking him to not venture deep into the forest, but Gulabrao ignored his advice. It was the morning of August 5.
“I knew of the lurking danger when our cows began to moo and became restless; they had perhaps smelled something,” says the elderly Natthuji, recounting in the Varhadi dialect what happened that day.
Minutes later he heard a tiger growling and then pouncing on his brother. It was a huge animal and Gulabrao stood no chance. Natthuji watched, helpless. He shouted at the tigress, picked up stones and hurled them at her. The animal vanished into the forest shrubbery, leaving the body of his brother there. “I ran back to the village to get some help,” he says. “Many villagers came with me and we managed to get my brother’s body back home… it had been mauled.”
Natthuji hasn’t recovered from the shock and fear. The brothers routinely took around a 100 cattle of the village for grazing to the nearby forests – Vedshi village is deep inside the forests of Ralegaon, where T1 was on the prowl for two years.
In August 2018, T1 killed three persons, starting with Gulabrao. Another villager was as from the neighbouring village of Vihirgaon was killed on August 11, and a third villager in Pimpalshenda on August 28.
Gulabrao’s son Kishor has since been drafted by the forest department as a guard for a monthly salary of Rs. 9,000. He says the herders and shepherds of his village now together take their cattle for grazing. “We stick together. We don’t venture deep into the forest since the tigress could be hiding anywhere…”
Five: Nagorao Junghare, 65, from the Kolam tribe; Pimpalshenda village (in Kalamb tehsil, along the border of Ralegaon tehsil), August 28, 2018
He was T1’s last victim.
Junghare owned five acres, and was a cattle herder. He would take his cows to the nearby jungle patch for grazing every morning, while his sons worked the farm or went to work on others’ farms on daily wages.
Sitting in their brick and mud hut, his wife Renukabai recalls that on August 28, their cows came home in the evening and made a lot of noise, but her husband did not return. “I felt something was wrong,” she says.
Immediately, a group of villagers rushed to the forest where Junghare usually took his cows for grazing. This time, too, they saw drag marks – and around a kilometre into the forest they saw his body. “The tigress had dragged him after having sucked his blood from the neck,” Renukabai says. “If we were late in finding the body, we may not have found it at all…”
After this incident, their elder son Krushna was recruited as a forest guard to accompany the village’s cattle herders and shepherds into the forest. The younger son Vishnu works as a daily wage labourer in his village or in Mohada, a nearby village on the Pandharkawada-Yavatmal state highway. (See ‘When I see him back home, I thank the tiger’)
The Kolams have stopped farming out of fear. “I now fear for my son’s life,” says Renukabai. “He has taken up this job [as a guard] for his family; he has two daughters. But I don’t want him to do this work until the tigress is captured.”
And death by elephant
Archana Kulsanghe, 30, from the Gond Adivasi community; Chahand village, October 3, 2018
She was collecting cow-dung in front of her shanty when death came from behind. An elephant had gone berserk after freeing itself from its chains hours earlier at the base camp of forest officials near Loni, around 35 kilometres from Chahand village. It came from behind, picked Archana in its trunk and threw her in the cotton field a few metres away in rage. She died on the spot, even before anyone could fathom what had happened.
“I was in the porch brushing my teeth, the sun was not yet out,” says Archana’s flustered husband Moreshwar, a farm labourer, with his five-year-old son Nachiket clinging to him. “We heard a big noise, the elephant came crashing from behind our neighbour’s home and ran towards the road in front of the huts.” He stood helplessly watching the elephant hurl Archana.
The elephant injured another villager in neighbouring Pohana village, who died three days later, before it was captured and calmed on the highway.
Moreshwar’s mother Mandabai says her daughter-in-law’s death is a calamity for their family. “I am worried for my grandsons,” she says.
Gajraj – the elephant summoned from the Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve in Chandrapur district – was one of five elephants employed for the operation to locate the elusive T1 before the forest department sent it back. Four other elephants, used in earlier rescue and capture operations, came from Madhya Pradesh. They too were sent back when the officials temporarily called off the operation after this incident. The department has launched an inquiry into why Gajraj went berserk.
There is no clarity yet on what will happen to the jobs some of the villagers got as guards, now that T1 has been killed. It is possible that the forest department will retain them on daily wages for other work as part of the compensation package. The families of all the victims are eligible for Rs. 10 lakhs as compensation. Some have got it, for others the paperwork is in process.