Avni, a five-year-old alleged man-eater tigress, who had created terror in Maharashtra's Vidarbha forests, was shot dead early on Saturday near Borati village in Yavatmal district, drawing flak from activists and Shiv Sena, the ruling BJP ally in Maharashtra.
Shiv Sena's Yuva Sena chief Aditya Thackeray attacked the government for shooting the tigress, terming it as "poaching and trophy hunting."
The operation came after nearly three months of a massive hunt for the tigress undertaken with the help of trap cameras, drones, trained sniffer dogs and a hang-glider along with a team of forest department officials and spotters.
Avni, identified as T1, was considered responsible for the killing of at least 13 humans, though all deaths could not be linked to her after tests, according to experts.
A fertile and healthy tigress, she was protecting her two 10-month-old cubs in the vicinity of the Tippeshwar Tiger Sanctuary for several weeks till she was shot down by a marksman, Nawab Asghar Ali Khan.
Her carcass was shifted to Gorewada Rescue Centre in Nagpur for an autopsy and last rites.
As per the Supreme Court directives, the forest department and officials were required to first tranquillize and trap her, but in Saturday's operation, she allegedly attacked the stalking team which shot her.
Wildlife activist and medico Jerryl A. Banait, who has filed a public interest litigation jointly with NGO Earth Brigade Foundation (EBF), said the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA)'s rules have been grossly violated in the killing of Avni.
"Such an operation can be carried out only between sunrise and sunset. There were no vets present during the killing early today. Nor were there any police, as per the NTCA's guidelines. In the night, it is almost impossible to even identify the gender of any tiger, let alone a specific target like Avni," said Banait.
Aam Aadmi Party spokesperson Preeti Sharma-Menon accused Forest Minister Sudhir Mungantiwar of "murdering Avni in cold blood." "Who cares about a tigress when industrialists are on the prowl for forest lands," she remarked sarcastically.
In a strong statement, Thackeray Jr. said that instead of protecting the animals and forests from the poachers/trophy hunters, the government has got inspired by them.
Questioning the operation, he asked the Forest Minister Sudhir Mungantiwar whether the tigress was shot from a 'machaan.' "If the expert hunter could get a perfect shot to kill a moving animal, then why did he choose not to tranquilise her?".
He also demanded to know whether the shooter was practising killing animals and whether he can be prosecuted under the Wildlife Protection Act.
"As a family of wildlife lovers and conservationists, we were coordinating to stop this hunt but did not speak publicly to avoid making it a political issue. The tigress could have been easily tranquilised and relocated. Today, it is Avni, tomorrow it will be her cubs and other tigers," Thackeray said.
On the debate of man-versus-animals conflict, he said it was the duty of the government to end this conflict rather than kill the animals, hacking forest trees, even in Mumbai, in the name of improving infrastructure, and giving away 88 hectares of forest land for industrial use.
PETA India coordinator Meet Ashar termed Avni's killing as "illegally satisfying a hunter's lust for blood."
"This matter must be investigated and treated as a wildlife crime. Whether sanctioned by the state or not, nobody can be above law. This is a dark day for our nation," Ashar said.
Besides PILs in the Supreme Court and Bombay High Court (Nagpur Bench), several wildlife groups and activists had strongly opposed plans to eliminate Avni.
The activists point out that it would also mean near-certain death for her two dependent young ones. They took to online petitions and social media campaigns for several months in a bid to save the tigress and her cubs.
(With inputs from agencies.)