The parallel successes of lion conservation in the Gir sanctuary and a strong tourism promotion drive there has forced the state forest department to establish a no-construction zone within a two-km radius of the protected area.
Top forest officials said they have been silently working towards looking at Gir as Greater Gir,which not only includes this two-km buffer zone but a thorough mapping of grasslands and scrub-grassland combinations in Amreli and Bhavnagar.
At a biodiversity conference organised jointly by the states Environment and Forests (E&F) department,the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the Centre for Environment Education (CEE) here on Wednesday,a top official said that a notification for the two-km buffer zone has already been passed.
There are pressures from excessive tourism (in Gir),and tourism of course needs a standard infrastructure to sustain it. But the carrying capacity of the region cannot be stretched beyond a certain extent, said Bharat Pathak,director of the Gujarat Ecological Education and Research (Geer) Foundation,an autonomous body set-up by the E&F Department in 1982.
Thats why we have prohibited the construction of any new tourist resorts in this two-km buffer bordering the protected area. It has been notified already. But the existing structures will remain, he added.
Pradeep Khanna,Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (PCCF) and head of the states wildlife,said all commercial structures are prohibited under this new rule.
Replying to a question by CEEs Kiran Desai on how the department is bracing for possible man-lion conflicts because of the department having succeeded too much in its conservation efforts,Khanna said,Silently,we have added Greater to Gir. Hardly anyone has noticed this.
This Greater Gir consists of areas in Amreli and Bhavnagar districts. We have mapped the whole area. Silently,the grasslands have been dedicated to lions. So when you hear about lion sightings there,its because we have in a sense paved the way for them to be there, said Khanna.
Pathak added that the entire Saurashtra region has non-contiguous patches of adequate grasslands and scrub-grasslands where lions can thrive,and it is a possibility,even if unlikely,to have lions all over Saurashtra.
Tourist inflow on the rise
Forest department figures show the number of visitors to the Gir has increased tremendously after the tourism department roped in actor Amitabh Bachan to help promote tourism in the state.
Christmas and Diwali festivals,considered the main tourist seasons,have especially shown impressive gains 58,078 visitors were registered during these two seasons in 2009-2010,which increased to 86,590 in 2010-2011.
The latest count of the Asiatic lion population,released in May 2010,showed an increase of 52 lions from the last count five years ago,taking the total to 411.
The count had also established the presence of lions outside the Gir National Park and Sanctuary area,in the four districts of Amreli,Bhavnagar,Porbandar and Junagadh. Altogether,76 lions 21 females and 26 males were recorded in the greater Gir region.