A right to information (RTI) reply has revealed that the government has finally shrunk drastically the eco-sensitive zone (ESZ) from the earlier 8 km to 17.9 km around the sanctuary to a meagre 100 metres to maximum 500 metres in the modified ESZ proposal.
In fact, the Asiatic lions, which are 523 in numbers as per latest census, have the least protection; lesser than the equally endangered tigers in India. Three tiger reserves, where ESZ has been finalised, have a protection area ranging from 2 km to 14.85 km. Other tiger reserves are yet to send their ESZ pro proposals.
The decision to modify the ESZ was taken at a meeting held on November 28 where wildlife conservationists were not even invited for suggestions. " As revealed in the RTI reply , the meeting was held on November 28 last year in the presence of ministers in Gandhinagar with `affected' people around Gir and the decision to modify ESZ was taken. Now, ESZ has been kept minimum 100m and maximum 500m around Gir Wildlife Sanctuary and National Park, Mitiyala Wildlife Sanctuary and Paniya Wildlife Sanctuary ," said Biren Padhya, the wildlife activist who filed the RTI, told TOI. Ironically , lion is the symbol of Prime Minister Naren dra Modi's `Make in India' campaign. Now, the ESZ covers only 207 sq km in 114 villages in nine talukas of three districts as against the original 3,328.8139 sq km covering 291 villages, said Padhya.
Earlier, the central government had notified an area up to 17.9 km from the boundary of the Mitiyala Wildlife Sanctuary , 16.3 km from the boundary of the Gir Wildlife Sanctuary and up to 14.98 km from the Paniya Wildlife Sanctuary . A senior IFS officer told TOI, "The forest department was completely left out while deciding on ESZ. Earlier proposal of 17.9km that we had prepared was made using sound scientific data. If the modified proposal is legally challenged, it would be very difficult to defend the decision."
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Experts said the alarming consequences of a shrunk ESZ would be little control over mining, haphazard and illegal tourism and chances that even polluting industries coming up dangerously close to lion movement. Even the lions outside the protected area would not be safe and chances of human-animal conflict would only strengthen.
Recently , the parliamentary committee headed by Renuka Chaudhary had lambasted the shrunk ESZ as a joke."Chaudhary had even pulled up a forest officer who was defending the haphazard tourism at the cost of wildlife and asked them whether he was a forest officer or a tourism officer" an official present in the meeting said.