Nawab Shafath Ali Khan, one of India’s last hunters (Photo: Ranadheer Bakkannagari)
BACK IN 2009, after several days of tracking a tigress that had killed five humans in about four months in Uttar Pradesh’s Faizabad district, Nawab Shafath Ali Khan found himself, like it often happens towards the end of these expeditions, atop a machan in a forest, as the night set in.
The tigress, which was about four years old, had first ventured out of the Pilibhit Tiger Reserve close to the international border with Nepal, into a neighbouring sugarcane field. But over the course of a few months, it had strayed further away, moving across villages, crossing a river, and once even finding itself on the grounds of a college campus within Lucknow’s municipal limits, preying upon humans and cattle, before finally reaching Faizabad some 300 kilometres away from its original location. Terrified local authorities had announced a bounty of ₹5,000 to take down the animal, and as several individuals with licenced but inadequate weapons tried to shoot it unsuccessfully, leading it to become even more wily at stalking humans; Khan was finally summoned.
Khan had attempted to but failed at tranquillising the tigress. And now he sat upon the machan as the night set in, a companion to handle the spotlight beside him, using a calf the tigress had hunted but hadn’t yet feasted upon as bait.
These weren’t ideal conditions, Khan recalls today. The tallest tree he could find was only 14-feet high, which meant that the machan, which is a wooden frame that is suspended from trees, could go up to a maximum of only 10 feet from the ground, not entirely out of reach for a full-grown tiger leaping in the air. But Khan decided to take his chances.
Sometime after sunset, when the air suddenly filled with the sound of a scared peacock nearby, and some wild dogs that had gathered around the carcass of the calf fled, Khan knew the tigress was near. When his companion switched on the spotlight, the tigress lay not too far away. And the moment the light fell upon it, it charged towards its source with a deafening roar that Khan learnt the next morning was heard by villagers a kilometre away.
The next few minutes passed in a breathless blur. The tigress would charge and lunge, once reaching as close as 12 metres, even while Khan shot it twice with his .458 Magnum rifle. When he worked a third cartridge into his rifle’s chamber, he looked down to find that the tigress was now directly below their machan, ready, he says, to jump and maul them to death. The recoil from the third shot was so forceful that it pushed back both Khan and his companion, and the spotlight fell, plunging them in absolute darkness. Khan now worked a fourth bullet into the rifle’s chamber in the darkness, freed the spare torch he carries on his belt, and shone its light below. The tigress lay immobile.
“That was my closest brush with death,” Khan says. “That was probably my most scary experience.” But then Khan grows quiet suddenly. When it returns, his unusually soft voice has acquired an urgency. “Or it is one of those times chasing Avni,” he says, recalling the tigress also known as T1 which Khan’s son Asghar eventually killed in 2018, after it had terrorised the villages in and around Yavatmal in Maharashtra for nearly three years. “When we walked through nullahs and tall bushes, tracking it like we do the traditional way on foot for 4 or 5 kilometres, and we know we have entered the tigress’ territory, its pungent odour is everywhere, and we are just a leap away from death,” he says. “All that is between her and us is God Almighty and my rifle.”
Khan is a controversial figure in animal conservation circles. The descendant of an aristocratic family of hunters from Hyderabad, he is the man officials turn to when wild animals terrorise rural communities. To his detractors, he is a cold-blooded killer and a relic of India’s inglorious past of trophy hunters. But he sees himself more as a gentleman shikari, one of the last of his kind, someone who hunts to protect innocent humans, and who, by hunting maneaters and rogue beasts and thereby ensuring villagers do not turn against all wild animals, does more for conservation than his detractors let on.
“I am the last resort [for officials and local communities],” he says. “They call me when there is no other hope.”
Khan is currently in his house in Hyderabad. But increasingly, this is the place he occasionally visits to meet extended relatives or to attend religious functions. He is otherwise almost always found at an unostentatious dwelling he has built amidst the forests at the foothills of the Nilgiri Hills, at the edge of the Mudumalai National Park. “I am most at home in a forest,” he says. He loves retiring to bed in the nights listening to the familiar noise of the forest, he says, or going on his morning walks with one of his dogs as a companion, where he still kneels down to check the paws of tigers or leopards in his vicinity.
Khan has now come out with a book titled Avni: Inside the Hunt for India’s Deadliest Man–eater, which details the controversial 2018 hunt for Avni or T1 that had killed at least 13 people in Maharashtra’s Yavatmal region. The campaign to capture or kill Avni became arguably post-independent India’s biggest such effort, involving hundreds of wildlife officials, veterinarians, experts, sharpshooters and police commandos, that stretched for nearly three years, and one that played out not just in the jungles, but also in courtrooms and urban streets, with petitions and candlelight vigils to save the tigress.
“We wanted to put our version of the story,” Khan says. “There was a sudden turn of events towards the end, where Avni became very aggressive. It was puzzling. With this book, we tried to get to the bottom of it.”
According to Khan and his son, the campaign was doomed from the start. There were far too many people, each with their own poorly-conceived plans. Khan’s presence, and his insistence on discipline, he says, made him unpopular; and the others would often meddle or sabotage his plans. He quit several times, he says, but would be cajoled into returning. “We also have to remember that when there is a project of this size, with lots of money pouring in daily for years, it is in the interest of some that the tigress is never caught and the project drags on for years,” he says.
One of the more amusing plans, hatched by some veterinarians, included using a perfume—Calvin Klein’s “Obsession for Men”, which had apparently been found to attract female jaguars in experiments abroad—to lure Avni. But as these failed, and more half-eaten human bodies began to turn up, the villagers became more agitated, and once even burnt the vehicle of a senior officer.
Eventually, a group of veterinarians, unknown to Khan and his son, had sprinkled the urine of another tigress at a few spots, an ill-advised move, Khan says, because not only did it make Avni more aggressive, it also happened to be on the day of a busy bazaar in that locality. The tigress was seen by many people that day. And later, when Asghar led a team that tried to tranquillise it, Avni charged at them. Asghar had no alternative, says Khan who was away that day in Patna, but to shoot it dead.
The celebration by local villagers soon devolved into a nightmare for Khan and his son, as the two were portrayed, they say, as cold-blooded killers and animal welfare activists alleged that the two had not followed rules.
“These activists have no real clue about animals and wildlife. They are misguided and don’t often have the best interests of animals on their mind,” Khan says. To him, even those in cities who bring out candlelight vigils in support of not hunting rogue beasts, like it happened when the hunt for Avni was ongoing, are at best naïve, and at worst complicit in the terror maneaters and such beasts release on poor villagers who live close to them. “Do you think they would have the same views if their families were the ones in danger?”
“People often underestimate a tiger’s intelligence, especially when it turns to killing humans and begins to understand human behaviour,” he writes in the book. “Most people, including specialists, often fail to understand this trait, as their experience comes from viewing tigers in national parks.”
What activists don’t understand about conservation, Khan says, for instance in the case of tigers, is that conservation is devoted to saving the tiger, and not a tiger. Attempts to put hurdles in the elimination of a problematic predator turn more local villagers against it, who then set up traps to poison and electrocute all such predtors.
Khan cuts a curious figure. He likes to track wild beasts on foot instead of the safety of a car, because the landscape can give clues, he says, that can be missed from a car. He describes the odour of tigers as a peculiar mix of good quality basmati rice and cat’s urine. He is also usually dressed in camouflage attire. On his trips, apart from his rifles, he always carries a pistol, a torch, a combination knife with pliers and a small First Aid pouch with medicines for snakebites and burns, disinfectants, cotton wool and forceps to pull out thorns. He also always has some dry fruits. And sometimes when he, along with his team, gets lost in jungles, all they have are these dry fruits to survive on. “In a way, what we do is against human nature,” he says. “It is in our natural instinct to turn away even when a cracker goes off. But we have to stand our ground even when an elephant is hurtling towards you, keep your hand steady and aim.”
Khan’s initiation into hunting came through his grandfather, Sultan Ali Khan Bahadur, a renowned colonial-era elephant hunter, and the stories he would tell the young Nawab about his adventures in the jungle. “Our dinner table conversations were all about this,” he says. Sometimes, the elder Nawab would also take his young ward along with him on his expeditions. Khan was already holding a gun, he says, by the age of 5.
He became a sportsman shooter first, winning a gold medal at the 1968 National Games in Madras at the age of 12. “I have been shooting at the national level for over 54 years now,” Khan says, referring to his gold medal win representing Telangana in the 300 metres Big Bore shooting category in 2019. “I keep participating in shooting competitions and meets because you need to be in touch with your gun to be able to shoot a charging tiger on the field,” he says. “The day I miss a tiger, that will be my end. So, I’m keeping myself prepared for that rainy day.”
The ban on hunting, introduced in 1972, changed things. One could no longer hunt for sport in the way Khan’s ancestors might have done in the past. But animals that were declared maneaters or which turned rogue and posed a danger to humans needed to be captured or eliminated. And every time such a situation broke out, forest officials or veterinarians would turn to his grandfather.
In 1976, when Khan had just turned 20, and his grandfather was 80 years old, they turned to him instead. A rogue elephant had killed around 12 people in and around Mysore by then. Using the help of a man who had narrowly escaped the elephant, Khan drove into the jungle and then continued the rest of the journey on foot. “The elephant suddenly appeared, charging like a railway engine, flattening bushes and everything. But I stood calm and shot it,” he says. “I was nervous, but I did not let my nerves get the better of me,” he says.
Khan estimates he has shot at least 50 wild animals like tigers, leopards and elephants. He points out that he has saved far more by capturing them with the use of tranquillisers. Besides these, he also handles large-scale, state-sanctioned culls of wild boars and nilgai that threaten agricultural fields and airports, and also conducts workshops in capturing and hunting wild animals for forest officials.
His decades of pursuing maneaters has taught him, he says, that there is a streak of abnormality that runs through them. These show not just in the absence of their natural fear of humans, but also strange traits such as leopards that decapitate their human preys, or tigers that kill far more often than they normally do in their forests. “These are stressed animals,” he says. “They are outside their protected spaces. They are hungry. They do not have their traditional prey base.”
The Indian wildlife today, he believes, stands at the threshold of a big implosion. Conservation projects to protect wild animals like the tiger have been successful and their numbers have risen, he says, but without an adequate increase in forest cover or their prey base. “It is a false notion that villagers are venturing into the forests and thus getting killed. It’s actually the tigers, with their increase in numbers, that are venturing into human settlements.”
“There is a rise in the number of maneaters. Conservationists just don’t understand this. You have to devise a way of checking that,” he says.
Khan will turn 65 soon. Although he remains fit and is still capable, he says, of pursuing wild beasts like he did in his youth, he can increasingly feel the rigour of these expeditions on his body. “Sitting quietly for hours on a machan waiting for a maneater to show up, or walking for hours on foot. None of this is easy,” he says. During the hunt for Avni, he went 45 days without any sleep in the nights, and would catch up on short naps during the day.
Although he continues to remain fit and frequently hits the shooting ranges, he is unlikely to go out on another hunt. “I have hung up by hunting boots for good, I think,” he says. “Unless something drastic shows up.”
Khan lives in his countryside house with three dogs and some horses. These dogs are his companions, he says, and they accompany him in his walks, and their cries in the nights alert him to the presence of wild beasts nearby. Every evening, just before sunset, Khan packs his dogs in small cages built 20 feet atop trees.
On a recent evening, when he returned from a long drive, he was late in his routine. He was seated inside his house, just as the sun was about to set, when a dog shrieked in fright. Khan rushed outside to see a leopard take off with one of his dogs.
“I miss her [the dog] a lot,” he says. “She was one of my closest companions. But it all happened so quickly.”
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