Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Zoos on forest land to be considered ‘forestry activity’; experts flag concerns

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The Union environment ministry’s forest advisory committee has decided that zoos on forest land will be deemed as “forestry” activity, according to minutes of the panel’s February 17 meeting published on the Parivesh website on Thursday.

The proposal was placed before a technical committee of the Central Zoo Authority on July 30, 2020, which gave its nod and got subsequent approval from Prakash Javadekar, Union environment minister and chairperson of the authority. “Ex-situ conservation measures are taken in zoological parks. So, of course they should be considered to be forestry activity. We have lots of zoos in forest areas, many more may come up. There are talks in the ministry to amend the FC (forest conservation) Act to relax certain provisions, but no call has been taken yet,” a senior official of the forest conservation division said on condition of anonymity.

Wildlife experts said this will mean a boom in safari rides in wildlife-rich areas and a high footfall in ecologically sensitive forest land. HT reported on Friday that the FAC (forest advisory committee) eased norms for ecotourism projects by allowing “non-permanent” structures in protected areas without permission from the central government. These decisions are part of the larger goal of the ministry to ease provisions under the Forest Conservation Act, 1980.

During discussions in the ministry, it was debated whether zoo, rescue/rehabilitation and captive breeding facilities be treated as a forestry activity and provisions of the Act should apply. Construction of zoos on forest land, however, has diversified components including public utility facilities that have since been treated as non-forestry activity.

“The FAC members reviewed this issue in great detail in the present meeting and opined that all these public utility facilities are necessary for catering to broad objective of raising of awareness and people’s participation in wildlife conservation and for wildlife education,” the minutes state.

It was further decided that “the FAC concurred with the facts highlighted by the CZA (Central Zoo Authority) that considering zoos as a non-forestry activity has added multiple/overlapping layers of permissions to be procured under different agencies. Such multiple regulations hamper the spirit of conservation enshrined in the FCA 1980, which permits work relating or ancillary to conservation, development and management of forests and wildlife. Therefore, the FAC recommended that establishment of zoos over forest area… should not be considered as a non-forestry activity.”

Under the Wildlife Conservation Act, a zoo is defined as an establishment — stationary or mobile — where captive animals are kept for exhibition to the public but does not include a circus and an establishment of a licensed dealer in captive animals. Around 15% of land in a zoo is used for parking, cafeteria and other utilities.

“This directive will make declaration of big cat safaris (large enclosures) inside protected areas much simpler. This seems to have been done to mitigate human-large carnivore conflict, as large cats involved in conflict could be captured and released in such safaris (enclosures). These safaris can also subsequently help raise funds by introducing regulated tourism,” said Anish Andheria, president of the Wildlife Conservation Trust.

He cautioned against the tourism aspect and the facilitation of ecotourism. “Unless ‘ecotourism’ is first defined unambiguously, relaxing these two clauses (on ecotourism being a non-forestry activity) will result in huge damage to natural ecosystems.”

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