(CNN) — Officials have started removing hundreds of crocodiles from the site of the world's largest statue in India, prompting an outcry from conservationists and concerns about the welfare of the reptiles.
The crocodiles are being relocated to allow for a seaplane service to carry tourists to the Statue of Unity, a 597-foot-tall statue that opened in Gujarat in October, AFP reported.
At least 15 have already been lured into metal cages and moved elsewhere in the west Indian state, the Indian Express newspaper reported, with hundreds still remaining in the waters surrounding the landmark.
But the operation has been criticized by environmentalists and politicians.
The statue is twice the height of the Statue of Liberty.
SAM PANTHAKY/AFP/AFP/Getty Images
"Have we collectively lost our minds?" Bittu Sahgal, the editor of environmental magazine Sanctuary Asia, tweeted in response to the story.
"As any environmentalist will tell you, this is sheer insanity!" Indian journalist and activist Pritish Nandy added, while others questioned whether the move contravenes the country's wildlife protect laws.
Crocodiles are a protected species in India, listed under Schedule 1 of the country's Wildlife Protection Act, meaning they cannot be moved unless a state government determines it is "necessary for the improvement and better management of wildlife therein."
Local forestry official Anuradha Sahu said the state's government had ordered the removals "for safety reasons as the tourist influx has increased," according to AFP.
But the All India Mahila Congress, the female wing of opposition party the Indian National Congress, said the move showed Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government was "keeping the environment at bay again."
The Gujarat Forest Department did not immediately respond to a CNN request for comment.
The towering Statue of Unity depicts Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, a popular political and social leader who was part of the freedom struggle that resulted in India's independence from British colonial rule in 1947.
Twice the height of the Statue of Liberty, the landmark is estimated to have cost more than $410 million to erect.
A crocodile at the Zoological Park in New Delhi. The species are protected in India, and their removal from natural habitats is restricted.
MANAN VATSYAYANA/AFP/AFP/Getty Images
It is widely seen as the personal project of Modi, who announced the plans in 2010 and formally unveiled the statue in October.
But transport links to the site, which sits in a remote part of the Narmada district around 100 kilometres from the city of Ahmedabad, are limited, with most tourists currently arriving by bus.
The government finalized three seaplane routes in the region in June to improve access.