For more than two months, around 150 people have been searching for Avni, a tigress in the Ralegaon forest area in Maharashtra's Yavatmal district. The tigress, also called "T-1", has been blamed for killing 13 villagers over a period of 18 months in the area.
The operation to hunt her down has led to a war of words between wildlife activists across the country, who want the tigress to be tranquilised, captured and relocated, and the forest department, which has given an order to kill her if tranquilisation is not possible.
When Avni, who now has two 10-month-old cubs, was labelled a man-eater eight months ago and accused of killing 10 people within one year, the Forest Department launched an operation to track and tranquilize her. However, after she allegedly killed three more villagers in August, the order was changed to "tranquilize or shoot".
The group looking for her includes forest guards, officials, shooters, tranquillisers and now, a private hunter from Hyderabad.
"There is no concrete evidence to attribute all 13 killings to this tigress. There is evidence to attribute only three killings to her but the DNA analysis and other scientific data are missing. The forest department is depending on visual citing, pug marks and camera traps, but this doesn't prove that she is a man-eater. She remains in her territory in the forest and has not fed on human flesh. It was the human intrusion into her territory which led to these deaths but there are seven other tigers roaming around in the same area. If she is problematic, then capture and relocate her," Jerryl Banait, a wildlife activist based in Nagpur, told HuffPost India.
There is no concrete evidence to attribute all 13 killings to this tigress. There is evidence to attribute only three killings to her but the DNA analysis and other scientific data are missing.
Banait moved the Nagpur bench of the Bombay High Court against the forest department's decision, but his plea was turned down by the court. He and other wildlife activists then approached the Supreme Court, which refused to interfere in the high court's order and dismissed the petition on 11 September.
"The efforts to tranquilize and capture T-1 tigress will be continued and if unsuccessful, it shall be eliminated by shooting to avoid any further loss of human life. The CCF(T), Yavatmal is authorised to carry out this order and he shall not declare any prize or similar incentive for the responsible person," a bench of Justices Madan B. Lokur and Deepak Gupta ordered.
The judgement dealt a setback to the campaign to save Avni's life, but only temporarily.
A few days after the Supreme Court's order, activists launched a campaign again, this time against the forest department's move to rope in a private shooter from Hyderabad, Nawab Shafat Ali Khan.
Activists say Khan is "trigger happy" and accuse him of sabotaging the forest department's efforts to tranquilize and capture the tigress so that he could kill the animal. They took out a protest rally in Nagpur on 19 September, raising questions about Khan's record. Union minister Maneka Gandhi, who is also an animal welfare activist, intervened, forcing the forest department to remove Khan from the operation on 21 September.
But the operation to track Avni ran into trouble again when one of the five elephants employed in the operation ran amok and killed a villager on 3 October.
After this, senior officials from the forest department decided to call back Khan, a move which again triggered a backlash from activists.
AK Misra, Maharashtra's principal chief conservator of forests (wildlife), did not respond to multiple calls and messages from HuffPost India. The state's Deputy Conservator of Forests KM Abharna asked this reporter to contact her "boss" when asked for her response.
The Indian Express reported on Thursday that a "powered hang glider" is being used to locate Avni. The report also said that Khan has invited golfer Jyoti Randhawa to help track the tigress down with his trained dogs.
Banati alleged that the operation has been reduced to a "game hunt for fun now".
"The forest officials won't talk because they cannot justify bringing back Khan despite opposition from Maneka Gandhi. This means they do not value even a Union minister's words. The tigress has made a fresh kill on Wednesday and the tranquilizing experts have a very good chance to tranquilize her if Khan doesn't intervene," Banait alleged.
Khan could not be reached for his comments as his phone was not reachable.
Over 20,000 villagers spread out among 26 villages in the area are living in fear of Avni, the alleged man-eater, and senior forest department officials are stationed in Yavatmal until she is contained.
As wildlife activists continue to try and save her life, they say that the hunter is enjoying the "game", and is hell-bent on killing the tigress by sabotaging all efforts to tranquilize her.