Union minister Maneka Gandhi on Sunday said the shooting of “man-eating” tigress Avni in Maharashtra was “patently illegal” and a “ghastly murder”. She said it was “nothing but a straight case of crime”, and vowed to take up the matter with Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis. The Bharatiya Janata Party, which Gandhi belongs to, leads the state government.

Avni, officially called T1, was killed on Friday night in Yavatmal district during a hunt operation by the forest department. The six-year-old animal had allegedly killed at least 13 people in Ralegaon forest since June 2016. In September, the Supreme Court refused to stay a shooting order issued by the Bombay High Court, which had permitted the forest department to tranquillise or shoot a “man-eating” tigress.

“Despite several requests from many stakeholders, [Maharashtra Forest Minister Sudhir Mungantiwar] gave orders for the killing,” Gandhi said in a series of tweets. “He has been doing this regularly and this is the third tiger being murdered besides several leopards and wild boars. Every time he has used Hyderabad-based shooter Shafat Ali Khan, and this time his son has also appeared in the scene illegally to murder the tigress.”

Avni was shot dead by the shooter Asgar Ali, the son of well-known sharp-shooter Shafat Ali Khan. The choice of the shooter and the circumstances of Avni’s death have faced criticism from animal rights activists. Gandhi said Shafat Ali Khan was “a criminal known for supplying guns to anti-nationals and for a suspected case of murder”. “I fail to understand why a state government should even bother about such a man let alone hire his services for illegal and inhuman acts,” she said.

“His son [Asgar Ali] was not authorised to kill,” Gandhi said. “Despite the forest officials being committed to tranquillise, capture and quarantine the tigress, the trigger-happy shooter has killed her on his own under orders of [the minister].”

Earlier, animal rights activists said that guidelines were not followed during Avni’s killing. The India unit of animal rights organisation PETA – People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals – said that Avni was killed “in possible contempt of court and in apparent violation of the Wildlife Protection Act and the guidelines of National Tiger Conservation Authority”, PTI reported. Lawyer Tushar Mandlekar, who had moved the Supreme Court over the matter, demanded a probe by a special investigation team, reported the Hindustan Times.

Minister defends action

Meanwhile, Maharashtra Forest Minister Sudhir Mungantiwar told PTI on Sunday that Avni was shot dead as last resort when all attempts to tranquillise her failed and she attacked officials. He claimed authorities were trying to capture Avni alive for three months as no one in the forest department wanted to kill her. The tigress had to be shot down to save the lives of forest staff trying to tranquillise her, the minister claimed.

The principal chief conservator of forests gives the order to shoot an animal after following strict guidelines laid down by the Centre and the Supreme Court on killing wild species, he said. The forest department will look after Avni’s two cubs, Mungantiwar said.

The minister also criticised non-governmental organisations who were against Avni’s killing. “When we plant trees, NGOs do not come forward and lend a helping hand,” he said. “When we plan programmes for saving endangered species, they do not say a word. We could not have let humans die to save an animal.”