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India's top court approves shoot-to-kill order for man-eating tiger

New Delhi, India (CNN) A last-ditch attempt to save a "man-eating" tigress is underway in India, following a decision by the country's Supreme Court to grant forest rangers permission to kill the endangered animal in the western state of Maharashtra.

The tigress, known as T1, is believed to be responsible for the deaths of 13 people since January 2016 in the state's eastern Yavatmal district. Three were killed in August alone. In one particularly grisly case, as much as 60% of the victim's body had been consumed by the tigress, according to official records.

India's tiger population is strictly protected and any attempt to kill one of the animals requires approval from authorities under the country's Wildlife Protection Act.

Conservationists, though, had questioned the evidence linking the animal to attacks on humans, forcing the case to the Supreme Court.

In Tuesday's ruling, the court sided with local authorities in allowing forest rangers to shoot the tiger if they fail to capture it, striking a blow to activists and campaigners battling to save the tigress.

Expressing her disappointment at the ruling, conservationist Sarita Subramaniam questioned whether officials would make a fair attempt to tranquilize and capture the tigress, which is also a mother to two cubs, and move them to captivity.

"They (the forest officials) only plan to kill, which we suggested to the court, because they have issued an order to hire a hunter," said Subramaniam, who is the founder of Mumbai-based nongovernmental organization Earth Brigade.

"If your intention is to capture, why have you hired a hunter?"

Officials will also try to tranquilize a male tiger called T2, which has been seen in the same area. T2 is not believed to be responsible for any human deaths.

The tigers were last seen in a conservation area in Yavatmal district.

Human threat to tigers

CNN has reached out to officials regarding the case but has yet to obtain comment.

Deforestation and the encroachment of human habitations have resulted in increased contact between people and tigers.

"The depletion of forest land through cattle grazing is the biggest problem. Tigers aren't encroaching on human habitats. It's human beings who are continuously coming in," wildlife conservationist Ajay Dubey told CNN.

At the start of the 20th century, nearly 40,000 tigers roamed freely in what was then British India. According to the last census conducted in 2014 by the National Tiger Conservation Authority, there are now just 2,226 tigers in the wild.

Despite evidence -- including photographs -- presented by forest officials in Yavatmal linking the tigress to attacks on humans, campaigners say there are inconsistencies in the investigation.

"Any animal can be declared a 'man eater.' This labeling is a colonial hangover," said Subramaniam.

"There needs to be a scientific study done with modern technology to label a tiger a 'man eater.'"

Subramaniam says investigators need to carry out a full DNA analysis to identify the species involved in the attack. "The post-mortem reports said the puncture wounds were a particular size, but wild boars can also attack humans. There are scavengers like hyenas ... If they are relying on camera trap images, we need to see the date and time stamps. Everything is just based on the presence of the tiger in the area based on pugmarks."

Last attempts

Both Subramaniam and Dubey now plan to appeal the Supreme Court dismissal.

"We want a transparent operation. We are going to approach the governor of Maharashtra to protect this tiger. It is wrong especially as she is the mother of two cubs. How can you have the right to eliminate a defenseless mother?" said Dubey.

Subramaniam also wants a review in the process.

"Any court that issues a shoot-to-kill order does not ever write 'shoot to kill,' they always say 'try and capture, failing which, you shoot.' There needs to be a policy where one order is exclusively for capturing and if those attempts have failed, then a separate order is issued for shooting the tiger," she said.

In spite of the threats that India's tiger population faces, numbers are gradually rising.

Since 2006, when the tiger population sat at 1,411, numbers have gone up by nearly 60%.

But more work still needs to be done. "For us, this isn't about one tiger. It's about the species," said Subramaniam.

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