The Gujarat forest department has started relocating crocodiles from two ponds on the Sardar Sarovar Dam premises on the Narmada river to enable authorities to start a seaplane service at the Statue of Unity, reported The Indian Express on Friday.

There are close to 500 mugger, or marsh, crocodiles (Crocodylus palustris) in the ponds. These animals are among the most endangered species and fall under Schedule 1 of the Wildlife Protection Act. Fifteen reptiles have been removed so far.

The Airports Authority of India and the Department of Civil Aviation had prepared a feasibility report about the seaplane service in the run-up to the inauguration of the Statue of Unity. The civil aviation team eventually zeroed in on Pond 3 – officially called Panchmuli lake – since, according to an official, it “has a vast body, making it perfect”.

“We are rescuing the crocodiles from Ponds 3 and 4, which are close to the site,” said Dr K Sasi Kumar, the deputy conservator of forests in Narmada district. “We have put 10 teams of officials for the exercise.”

The crocodiles, which were baited into entering cages by using fish, were in the forest department’s custody for about a week. The department then decided to let them into the Sardar Sarovar Narmada Dam reservoir. Most of the animals will be released there, Kumar added.

An official of Sardar Sarovar Narmada Nigam Ltd, who refused to be named, questioned the forest department’s move. “It may not be possible to release all into the reservoir in one go,” he told the newspaper. “They will have to be distributed in other places as well. It is most likely that a lot of these crocodiles could end up going back closer to the human habitats from where they were once rescued and brought to the Narmada.”

It is a practice to release crocodiles captured from human settlements during the monsoon season in the Narmada dam ponds. Ajwa reservoir closer to Vadodara is home to hundreds of such reptiles.

Dr Jitendra Gavali, the director of the Community Science Centre in Vadodara, said the transfer of crocodiles in such large numbers to pave the way for a seaplane terminal was “against the principles of the Wildlife Protection Act”.

“Moreover, releasing them into the dam reservoir would mean that the female crocodiles may not be able to nest if the slope of the dam is more than about 40 degrees,” he added. “Crocodiles need space on land to nest and also to come out of the waters during winters…If the government has spent crores of rupees making the Statue of Unity, it should spend some more money to make an artificial pond for landing the seaplanes without disturbing the ecological balance and natural habitat of crocodiles.”