MoEF notice to halt work on lion safari project in Etawah

Notice to Uttar Pradesh says project in reserved forestland for commercial purpose is illegal

 
By Biswajeet Banerjee
Published: Saturday 04 July 2015

Asiatic lions: Pawns in a powe (Credit: Arvind Yadav / CSE)The Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) has put a spanner in Uttar Pradesh chief minister Akhilesh Yadav's pet project—a lion safari in his father's home district, Etawah. The ministry has slapped the state government with a notice, asking it to halt construction work on the project immediately. The notice says the development work in the reserved Fisher Forest in Chambal area of Etawah is illegal because the Uttar Pradesh government has not taken permission from the ministry for it as required under the Forest Conservation Act of 1980.

The main objection raised by MoEF is that the state government is planning to use the forestland for commercial purposes by planning a lion safari in it. “Taking up non-forest activities, including constructing permanent structures, is a violation of the Forest Conservation Act. Besides, the working plan of the Etawah forest division up to 2015-16 has already been approved,” says the notice.

Mulayam's dream project
 

Total area: 150 hectare

Estimated cost: Rs 35 crore

Money spent: Rs 4.1 crore.

 

What officials say now:

  • Etawah is best suited for lion safari because of the region's geographical similarity to Gujarat's Gir forest
  • As there is no zoo in western region of the state, lion safari in Etawah would help children learn about wildlife
What officials said during Mayawati regime
  • Lion Safari is not feasible as there is no similarity between Etawah and Gir forest zone
  • Bijnore and Saharanpur are part of elephant corridor, and so there is a need for setting up a lion reserve
 
The lion safari proposal was first mooted in 2005 when Akhilesh's father, Mulayam Singh Yadav, was the chief minister of the state. A total of 150.83 hectares of forestland bordering Madhya Pradesh was identified for the purpose. At that time, the state government had approached MoEF with the plea that the project would boost tourism and generate income for local people. It was argued that the topography and ecology of Gir and Etawah are similar and so permission should be given to set up the lion safari in the area. But the ministry turned down the proposal, saying the Central Zoo Authority should first give its consent. That consent never materialised, and with Samajwadi Party losing power in 2007 the project was shelved.

Uttar Pradesh's chief wildlife warden, Rupek De, says the ministry's communication is a “routine exchange of letters between two governments”. An appropriate answer would be given to MoEF at the appropriate time, he says.

The project, which will cost an estimated Rs 35 crore, is being closely monitored by chief minister. Akhilesh Yadav, who during his visit to the area last month, had asked officials to expedite the project. The lion safari figured prominently in the state budget that was passed on July 3.

A thorny problem

As per the master plan for the project, the thorny Babool tree, the primary species of the Chambal ravines, will have to be eradicated and replaced with species dominant in the Gir sanctuary area, to provide the lions with a favourable habitat. Babool is not suited for the soft padded lion and removing the trees from the habitat area may prove an uphill task, say forest officials.

The master plan calls for grass plantation for soil and moisture conservation, apart from provision of permanent water source for lions by digging deep bore wells. Growing trees on rocky surfaces will require larger efforts as special machines will have to be pressed into service to drill pockets, which then will have to be filled with soil to prepare for plantation, say officials. To start with, the state government has sanctioned Rs 5 crore.

“The final plans have been sent to the senior officials for approval. Once the approvals are in place, we shall approach the Central Zoo Authority (CZA) for sanction,” says Sujoy Banerjee, divisional forest officer of Chambal wildlife division at Agra.

But MoEF has taken a strong exception to felling of trees and the process of levelling the ground. No felling is proposed in the area as per the approved working plan of the Etawah forest division. Any change in working plan prescription requires prior approval from the Central government under the Forest Conservation Act, the MoEF letter says.

Despite these objections, the state's wildlife department has initiated talks with some of the zoos of the country, including those in  Junagadh, Rajkot and Hyderabad, for procuring Asiatic lions. De, the state's chief wildlife warden, says work on the project is being undertaken on a war-footing. “The current habitat (Fisher Forest) is being modified. We have consulted the authorities of the Gir forests to have a habitat which is best suited for the lions and replicate it here. The species of trees that we will be planting include sheesham (Indian rosewood), semul (silk cotton tree), Acacia and ficus species such as bargad (banyan tree) and peepal. Grass species will also be added," he says.  He adds that the state will soon procure pure bred Asiatic Lions (Panthera leo persica) and they would first be kept in the state's existing zoos from where they would be shifted to the safari park when work gets completed.

In the first phase, breeding centres would be set up inside the safari area.  As per the CZA's conditions, the safari would be opened for public only when the number of lions goes up to 10. In the second phase, requisite infrastructure would be developed inside the safari area, says De.

As per the April-2010 census, India has 411 Asiatic Lions, of which Gir in Gujarat has around 297.

Flip flop on project feasibility

When the Bahujan Samaj Party headed by Mayawati came to power in 2007, officials had said that the lion safari project was not feasible and said the environment around Fisher Forest zone in Etawah was not conducive enough to set up a lion safari in league with the Gir forest in Gujarat. The Mayawati regime's focus was on developing an elephant (the party's symbol) reserve in Bijnore.

After Akhilesh Yadav assumed charge as chief minister in March this year, the lion safari project was revived. Work has been started by felling existing trees, changing the landscape and undertaking fresh plantation.

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