Gujarat High Court acts to protect home of India's Asiatic lions
Environmentalists and wildlife activists have been alleging for years that illegal commercial properties mushrooming around the Gir sanctuary are posing a threat to the only home of Asiatic lions in India, but the state government ignored them - till an anonymous letter informed the Gujarat High Court.
Taking a proactive approach, the HC on Monday converted the letter into a suo motu petition and ordered the State Environment and Forests Department to submit a detailed affidavit on the status.
The affidavit, the content of which was available on Tuesday, has a list of 66 commercial and residential establishments around the buffer zone of the lion sanctuary.
The state affidavit says: "It has come to the notice of the forest department that certain hospitality units have been set up under the garb of commercial and residential establishment adjoining (the) Gir sanctuary and the department is looking into the issue in order to protect the interest of lions."
The government submission before the high court said 66 properties in the sanctuary's buffer zone in Junagadh, Amreli and Gir-Somnath districts were illegal and operated in complete violation of the existing norms.
The forest department also admitted that a tourist resort being run by a renowned hotel group in the area would now need to obtain a clearance from the Ministry of Environment, since its lease had already expired.
No forest official was willing to comment on the entire issue, pointing out that the matter was now sub-judice and all explanations would be given to the court.
The HC has also taken serious cognisance of the contention in the anonymous letter, which pointed out the Gujarat Government's ambitious plan to develop a new eco-tourism zone in the coastal region in Amreli district on the outskirts of the Gir sanctuary.
To the explanation sought by the high court about this eco-tourism plan, the State Environment and Forests Department has claimed that the move would not choke the lion corridor.
It has argued that the lion movement was usually noticed between sunset and sunrise while tourists visit the area during the day time.
The government has buttressed its contention by pointing out that the number of tourists in the sanctuary had risen from 1.30 lakh in 2006 to over 4.58 lakh in 2013-14, but this had not disturbed the lion corridor.
An anonymous letter to the High Court alleged that commercial establishments are posing a threat to lions in Gir (file picture).