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Cry to save reserve forest from zoo inside

Bangalore, May 22: Atal Bihari Vajpayee may have been a threat to Iron Men and some gents in khaki shorts when he was in power but never to other species.

Now a zoo named after him is at the centre of a battle raging around the fate of assorted animals such as sloth bears, wild boars, leopards, pangolins, simians and hundreds of species of birds and reptiles.

Conservationists are up in arms against the upcoming project — the Atal Bihari Vajpayee Zoological Park — inside a reserve forest that already houses a bear sanctuary in north Karnataka.

The project — inside the Billikallu West Reserve Forest — has been a bone of contention ever since the then BJP government ordered in November 2010 to develop it in the current location in Kamalapura, in Bellary district, where the Daroji Bear Sanctuary is located.

Although it was supposed to come up at Munirabad in neighbouring Koppal district, the project was shifted to Bellary, the home district of former tourism minister Janardhana Reddy who showed a lot of interest in getting the zoo to enrich tourism potential in his turf.

The mining baron apparently exerted pressure to shift the project before he was arrested in the mining scam and was sent to jail in September 2011.

Work is on in 350 acres carved out of the 55sqkm reserve forest. The Daroji Bear Sanctuary that houses more than 150 sloth bears is nearby in the same forest stretch.

Some 380km north of Bangalore, the zoo site is 15km from Hampi, the erstwhile capital of the Vijayanagar Empire and a major tourist hub. By positioning the zoo close to Hampi, the government plans to capitalise on the local tourist presence.

But the contention of wildlife activists is that zoo animals would be dangerous for the wild animals as they could transmit diseases usually borne by captive inmates. The reserve forest is home to animals like sloth bears, wild boars, leopards, pangolins, simians and hundreds of species of birds and reptiles.

This prompted two wildlife activists to file a PIL with Karnataka High Court recently. But the court being in summer holidays is likely to hear the petition only in June.

The petition sought judicial intervention to quash the government order that led to the shifting of the zoo to the reserve forest.

One of the petitioners, Santosh Martin, told The Telegraph it would be disastrous to have a zoo inside the forest area. “Pristine forest should not be destroyed for the sake of a zoo which can be built elsewhere,” said Martin, a former honorary wildlife warden of Bellary.

“This is a corridor for many animals and a nesting ground for endangered birds. Much of the biodiversity in the area will be lost forever if the zoo is built,” he said.

“There could be outbreak of diseases from zoo animals that can threaten the existence of the animals in the wild. Not just that, the zoo will give rise to commercial activities that will destroy the area’s serenity.”

But the authorities feel the outcry is unreasonable. “It’s not as if the entire flora and fauna in the Billikallu forest would get destroyed,” R.S. Suresh, additional principal chief conservator of forests and member secretary of the Zoo Authority of Karnataka, said.

“Modern zoos are very sensitive towards ecological matters and we will ensure that very sparse clearing of forests is carried out.”

He said the worries about captive animals spreading diseases to those in the wild were unfounded as all inmates will carry a proper medical certificate after extensive check-ups before they are brought to the zoo. “The standard practice is that we don’t move sick animals,” he added.

He revealed that the government would file a counter to the PIL. “We have made good progress in the work on the zoo as constructions have begun and officials are posted. Being a tourist area (with the ruins of Hampi nearby), this is the best place for the zoo,” he added, reflecting the main objective of the state government.

A senior government official who did not want to be named, however, said the upcoming zoo would be perilous to all inhabitants of the reserve forest.

“Billikallu is the greenest forest in the whole of north Karnataka. So why not shift the zoo elsewhere and save this precious forest?” asked the official, pointing at the wealth of birds, reptiles and medicinal herbs endemic to this area.

“Highly endangered birds like the Yellow Sand Grouse, Chestnut Bellied Sand Grouse, Yellow Throated Bulbul, Yellow Footed Button Quail and the critically endangered Laterite Bush Quail are just a few of the species that nest here. Endangered pangolins thrive in this forest,” he said.

Other than the protected sloth bears, pangolins and leopards, the forest is also home to Indian wolves, rusty spotted cats, jungle cat, Asian palm civet and the critically endangered honey badgers.

“If the zoo comes up, many of these species are sure to be dislodged from their habitat. Not only would it spoil the eco-sensitive zone with tourist footfalls, buildings and large-scale vehicular movements, dislocation of animals would eventually lead to a rise in man-animal conflict,” he said.

Local wildlife activists are conceiving their next phase of action to save the biodiversity of this rare forest.