PUNE: An information centre, display of native flora and fauna and treks are among the attractions at the forest department’s Mahadev Van project in Bhimashankar.

The forest department recently received Rs75 lakh from the environment ministry for the project. Officials hope to cash in on a stream of visitors to Bhimashankar with its famous Jyotirlinga temple and to boost eco-tourism to the protected area.

The plan is to spread awareness about the biodiversity-rich area which visitors otherwise throng to only for the temple, chief conservator of forests (wildlife) Pune KP Singh said. “A large number of religious tourists visit the Mahadev temple at the edge of the sanctuary. However, most are not aware of the flora and fauna within the area,” he told TOI.

“The large number of visitors will expand wildlife and eco-tourism at the sanctuary. We want tourists to know that forests are also a form of god, hence the name Mahadev (almighty) Van,” Singh added.

Every Mahashivratri, between four and five lakh tourists visit Bhimashankar. It is one of the 12 Jyotirlinga sites in the country and one of four in the state. While some walk from their home towns, many drive down as well. Some trek through a part of the forest while walking from Murbad and Karjat sides, the officer said.

When religious tourists arrive in huge numbers, authorities have to keep a close watch on Mahashviratri crowd to ensure there is no littering. This year, forest officials have begun collecting the trash left behind and supplying it to a Pune-based company to convert into poly-fuel.

“The project will begin with an information centre and display of the native flora and fauna species found in Bhimashankar. In addition, we will also arrange stays and treks and tours for the tourists. There is no new infrastructure needed as we already have two structures on the premises,” Singh said.

The novel project was proposed with an estimated cost of Rs10 crore, of which the government recently disbursed Rs75 lakh to the forest department. “We expect to see further funding in phases over the upcoming financial year,” he said. The project will not only spread awareness for conservation, but also provide employment for the residents of the 9 tribal villages located within the sanctuary, added Singh.