Zoos can now be set up in forests sans green nod
Zoos located inside forests “can no longer be considered a non- forestry activity”, the environment ministry said in a letter to state governments and Union territories on June 8.
Zoos can now be established in forests and buffer zones of wildlife sanctuaries if they follow guidelines of the central government, the environment ministry has said, a move that has been criticised by experts as it could fragment wildlife habitats.
Zoos located inside forests “can no longer be considered a non- forestry activity”, the environment ministry said in a letter to state governments and Union territories on June 8. With this move, zoos will be exempted from taking multiple permissions and forest clearance under the Forest Conservation Act.
Considering zoos as a non- forestry activity added multiple or overlapping layers of permissions to be procured under different agencies, India’s Central Zoo Authority had earlier told the ministry. No new zoo was planned, approved or constructed without prior approval of authority under strict adherence to its 2009 guidelines for establishment and scientific management of zoos, it said.
In response to the representation, the environment ministry has decided to do away with provisions of para 12.6 and 12.7 of the handbook of the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980, which consider zoos, rescue centres or wildlife safaris where animals are kept for exhibition as a non-forestry activity. It makes forest clearance from the Centre mandatory.
“I am directed to convey that establishment of zoo over forest area by the forest department or state zoo authority and its management by the forest department/ state zoo authority after it is duly approved by CZA, a central regulatory authority under the ministry, should not be considered as a non-forestry activity for the purpose of implementation of provisions of Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980,” read the letter issued by the forest conservation division of the ministry. The letter is uploaded on the environment ministry’s Parivesh website.
The letter was enclosed with guidelines for the establishment of zoos, which the zoo authority is supposed to follow while granting approvals.
“Zoos in protected area areas will be avoided but in exceptional cases, the fringes of the buffer zone of the protected area may be considered for the construction of a zoo on forest land, subject to the condition that there is no hindrance in the movement of the wild animals of the area. No private or zoos in PPP (public-private partnership) mode will be allowed to come up in forests,” the ministry’s guidelines stated.
“We are not saying that zoos will come up in forest areas. But if state governments want, they can establish zoos in forest areas. This is mainly because if zoo animals are in their natural environment the chances of zoonosis are less. They can grow normally and have a better life. The visitors coming to see the animals can also see them in their natural environments. We have mentioned in the guidelines that office or administration infrastructure cannot be in more than 5% of the area,” an environment ministry official said, requesting anonymity.
The ministry’s forest advisory committee on February 17 last year decided that zoos on forest land will be deemed as a forestry activity.
The new development could impact wildlife and natural forest habitats, wildlife experts said.
“The environment ministry has fine-tuned the art of diluting laws through guidelines based on fanciful interpretations. The latest attempt is zoos now being treated as forestry activity on the absurd premise that it is ancillary to conservation of forests and wildlife by cleverly mixing it up with rescue centres and conservation breeding centres,” said Praveen Bhargav of the Bengaluru-based Wildlife First, a conservation advocacy group. “Like any other project, a zoo is also an unnecessary intrusion into a forest area, which causes fragmentation of habitat, including demand for a new road, power line, increased vehicular traffic, mushrooming of hotels and other commercial activity.”
The threat of zoonotic diseases, which the guidelines flag, is a real threat and strong enough grounds for reviewing this decision, said Bhargav. “Lastly, it is shocking that the ministry mentions buffer zone of protected areas, when no such classification exists in the Wildlife Act for protected areas other than those notified as tiger reserves.”
In a separate development, the standing committee of the national board for wildlife is considering granting approval to a golf course and resort bordering Loktak lake in Manipur.
Minutes of the National Board for Wildlife meeting held on March 25 were published on Sunday. “NBWL has considered a number of proposals for diversion of land from wildlife reserves. Significant among those is a proposal to divert 82.54 ha of land [i.e. for Golf Course (42.14 ha) and Resort (40.40 ha)] falling within the eco-sensitive zone of Keibul Lamjao National Park and Khongjaingamba Ching Sanctuary for the proposed Loktak Lake Eco-Tourism Project of Manipur’s tourism department,” according to the minutes of the meeting.
The standing committee of board has decided that the “proposal shall be examined by a committee composed of representatives of Wildlife Institute of India and Indian Institute of Technology, Roorkee to assess the impact of the resort and golf course on the hydrology of the area and Loktak Conservation Plan,” the minutes said.
Keibul Lamjao Park is the last natural habitat of the Sangai (brow antlered deer) of Manipur and Loktak has a unique ecosystem called phumdi (floating mats of soil and vegetation).