Statue of Unity Safari delayed, Gujarat seeks seized chimps

Last year, the government unveiled the 'Statue of Unity', sculpted in the honour of Sardar Patel in the state of Gujarat. (Photo: Getty/Thinkstock)

Chief Minister Vijay Rupani has sought three chimpanzees seized by the Customs Department at Kolkata airport for the zoological park being developed near the Sardar Patel Unity Statue in Kevadia, Gujarat. Earlier scheduled to be inaugurated on October 31, the 350-acre Sardar Patel Zoological Park (SPZP) is one of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s pet projects for the statue site.

Rupani’s request to Union Minister of Environment and Forests Prakash Javadekar seeking his intervention in getting the three chimpanzees, which are believed to have been illegally smuggled from abroad, follows death of several exotic animals meant for the park in transit.

The three apes have been at the Alipore Zoo in Kolkata for the past two months. The zoo authorities said the chimpanzees were doing well, and they had no information regarding Gujarat’s request.

In his letter, Rupani has said the apes would “generate additional attraction for thousands of tourists who are expected to visit the Jungle Safari”. Central Zoo Authority (CZA) Member Secretary S P Yadav confirmed receiving the letter, adding, “The minister (Javadekar) will respond on behalf of the CZA.”

Managing Director, Sardar Sarovar Narmada Nigam Limited, Rajiv Gupta is also Gujarat’s Additional Chief Secretary (Forests and Environment), and is in the loop on the plan.

The chimpanzees landed in Customs, followed by Enforcement Directorate (ED), custody as part of a money-laundering probe. Alleged wildlife smuggler Supradip Guha is being probed for using fake papers, including a birth certificate for one of the chimpanzees, to show the animals he was transporting as originating in India. He is also facing a case in a local court over possession of prohibited Indian wildlife. The ED seized the chimpanzees, and several marmosets, under the Prevention of Money Laundering Act. The chimpanzees are estimated to be worth nearly Rs 25 lakh each, and a marmoset Rs 1.5 lakh, in the market.

The Gujarat authorities had raced against time to build the SPZP within six months, from the time it was “envisaged by the honorable Prime Minister of India during his visit to Kevadia” in end 2018. It was developed on barren ground that had earlier served as dumping site for the debris excavated to build the Statue of Unity, and greening was done by transplanting fully grown trees.

In its letter, Rupani mentions that Modi had visited the site to review the work. However, the PM could not inaugurate it on the scheduled date of October 31, picked to coincide with the first anniversary of the opening of the statue.

The animals headed for the park which died in transit were being brought from South Africa. While sources told The Indian Express that eight-10 of the animals had died, Gupta said there were two-four deaths. “A few deaths are expected during transit from one country to another.”

Asked whether permission had been taken for the import of the animals from the CZA, Member Secretary Yadav said, “Import is a different issue and is handled by the DGFT (Director General of Foreign Trade).”

Under the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, imported animals have to be quarantined for at least 30 days. Till last week, with final touches still being given to the zoo, several of them remained under quarantine, including a giraffe, zebras and impalas. The zoo also has wallabies, emus, Pantagonian mara, ostrich, iguana, marmoset, several species of monkeys, a lion, a Royal Bengal Tiger, leopards, antelopes, Indian wild ass, single-horned rhino and Indian bisons. Its one-acre aviary is one of the largest in the country.

At the Kolkata zoo, the authorities say that the chimpanzees are a hit. “They attract huge crowds,” said a senior ED official. Alipore Zoo Director didn’t respond to phone calls.

(Inputs from ENS, Kolkata)