India minister turns on own party over killing of man-eating tiger

The tiger known popularly as Avni was shot dead in Maharashtra on Friday night, sparking immediate controversy (AFP Photo/-)

An Indian cabinet minister accused a party colleague Sunday of ordering the "ghastly murder" of a tiger and vowed legal action after the man-eating animal was shot in the country's west.

The big cat blamed for killing more than a dozen people was shot dead Friday night after a months-long search, capping one of India's most high-profile tiger hunts in decades.

But the shooting in the forests of Maharashtra state sparked immediate controversy and allegations the kill was unethical and illegal.

Maneka Gandhi, a staunch animal activist and part of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's cabinet, accused the state forest minister of hiring a "trigger-happy shooter" to slay the tiger.

"It is nothing but a straight case of crime", said Gandhi, a member of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), describing the shooting as a "ghastly murder".

"I am definitely going to take up this case of utter lack of empathy for animals as a test case. Legally, criminally as well as politically," she posted on Twitter.

She accused the state's forest minister Sudhir Mungantiwar -- also from the BJP -- of ignoring appeals to call off the hunt for the tiger known officially as T1 and popularly as Avni.

The Supreme Court had issued a hunting order for T1 in September, ruling that she could be killed if tranquilizers failed.

Several appeals were made against the death sentence.

Forestry officials acknowledged to Indian media that no vet was present during the hunt, as required by the Supreme Court order.

The Indian branch of the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals said the tiger slaughter was about "satisfying a hunter's lust for blood".

The big cat was blamed for 13 deaths since June 2016 but animal activists said she was trying to protect her young.

A team of more than 150 people had spent months searching for T1, using a paraglider and dozens of infrared cameras while sharpshooters had ridden on the backs of elephants.

T1 was shot by Asghar Ali Khan, son of India's most famous hunter Nawab Shafath Ali Khan, who was meant to be leading the hunt but was not present Friday night.

The senior Khan defended his son's actions as "a reflex action of self-defence" as the tiger turned on the hunting party after being struck by a tranquilizer dart.

India has launched a major campaign to boost tiger numbers. At the last tiger census in 2014 the number had risen to more than 2,200 from a low of less than 1,500.

But urban spread as the population of 1.25 billion grows has increasingly eaten into the territory of wild animals.

Endangered elephants and tigers kill on average one person a day, according to government figures.