Bhitarkanina, near to Pattamundai, area harbours rich biodiversity and breath taking scenic value. It is located in the Delta of Brahmani-Baitarani Rivers and is an estuary, criss-crossed by the rivulets and creeks. The significance of Bhitarkanina initiates right at its inception for it was the first area in the state of Odisha to win the glory of being the first Wildlife Sanctuary. The sanctuary spread over Rajnanagar and Rajkanina blocks has geographical area of 672sq.km, but the forest area is only 1634 sq. km. comprising of 25 forest blocks. The forest blocks are yet to gain the recognition of being a Reserved Forest. The flora of the area comprises of 82 species of mangroves and associates. The fauna includes saltwater crocodiles, large Indian lizard, poisonous snakes like King Cobra and non-poisonous snakes like Python and rat-snakes. More than 200 species of resident and migratory birds consider Bhitarkanika as resort and mammalian species like spotted deer, Sambar, fishing cat, Otter etc has the territorial jurisdiction over this area.
Being gigantic in size, Bhitarkanina has three conservation units in Rajnagar Division, namely Bhitarkakina Sanctuary, Bhitarkanika National Park, and Gahirmatha Marine Sanctuary. The sea beach of Gahurmatha on the north-eastern border of the sanctuary is a famous mass nestling ground of thousands of Olive Riddle Sea turtles. The time of the year I went in, this section was particularly closed for the breeding purposes. Previously such strict restriction were not maintained but due to the power hunger nature of humans, who often abducted the little turtles from their terrain to tame them, the area now remains prohibited during procreating seasons. Our lack of knowledge and indiscriminate behavior has already led to their depletion. Sea turtles are unique marine animals. Out of the 8 species of the sea turtles in the world, 4 of the species are seen in Odisha, but only Olive Ridley honours the area by laying their eggs. Olive Ridley turtle is the smallest among sea turtles. The adults have an average size of less than 1m in length and weigh between 35-65kgs. It is dark olive in color, hence the name Olive Ridley and feeds on crabs, shrimps, small fishes and so on. The over fishing in the bay areas has reduced the food abundance of these turtles hence captive breeding is the only mechanism to stop them from entering into the list of endangered species.
No plastics are allowed inside the area of the sanctuary which, I saw firsthand, was hardly complied to. An entire boat, like a duplex, costs about INR 3000 which one can share with other groups as the number goes as high as 12 people in one boat. Taking a boat from the entry point of the sanctuary, I decided to rise against the notion that I was given that I would not see any crocodiles in the baby summer season. The reason why I wanted to see this sanctuary was not for the reptiles alone. The mangrove that surrounds the area has a huge impact on the socio-economic life of the villagers and I wanted to see the extent of it in person. Mangroves are land builders, and stabilize the creek banks. They protect the hinterland against cyclones and tidal surges. The network of mangrove roots prevents bank erosion and control flood damage. My boatman, Raju, was a local resident and my companion for the 4 hours long voyage through the sanctuary. He told me that the local people depend on mangrove vegetation for the collection of honey, wax, medicinal plants and herbs. They use the plant and their associates for house construction, fuel wood, furniture, boat making, basket making and mat making most of which are used for commercial purposes and generate their income. The mangroves enhance considerably the productivity of marine and estuarine fish, prawns and crabs which contributes to the cash income and nutrition of the fishermen community of the region.
Only a person who has gained the benefits of these tiny plants could have had that detailed idea about its benefits. Raju also had a good idea on the old Hindi songs which, he believes, are far better than the modern culmination of recitation and musical instruments. A little company in music made him very happy and then I moved on to ask him what threats the Mangroves are facing in the area, to un-glue the article that remained in my cortex. With the changing lifestyle of people, the forest lands are converted to agriculture, aquaculture, village settlements and roads. Although the work is illegal Raju tells me if people are increasing in number what other option do they have but use lands to reside and forest to fill their hungry stomachs. The excessive use of pesticides in the agricultural fields of the surrounding ecosystem is causing damage to the natural mangrove. We conveniently overlook the fact that the natural is an inter-connected phenomenon. The hunting of wildlife and collection of wildlife products are triggering downfall of this ecosystem which will affect the natives much more than the newbies of the area.
The boats halted at a particular station where I walked through the mangrove forest. I picked for a walk and saw 2 crocodiles bounded inside iron cages solely for the unthoughtful acts of humans over the years. A talk with Mr Prabhat, guide for the small museum that contains the anatomical residues of crocodiles, snakes and a breathing Python inside a glass box, was very enlightening. By the mid-70’s Saltwater Crocodiles in India were critically endangered a result of over-hunting for skin and exploitation of mangrove forests. The Saltwater Crocodiles are the largest of the crocodiles inhabiting in estuaries of river with regular sea water tidal flow. It mainly thrives in fishes. A “Saltwater Crocodile Conservation and Research Centre” was set up at Dangmal in Bhitarkanika Sanctuary in July 1975 to adopt rear and rehabilitation technique. I went inside the breeding center and although it is always a pain to see that which is meant to be free within cages, I was happy to know that more than 2500 captive record crocodiles have been released in the river ecosystem of the sanctuary.
While I was taking my water and biscuits inside the boat, suddenly Raju called me out and I ran up and he pointed me towards something. At first I thought it’s a white cement slab but going closer I saw one huge crocodile resting and sunbathing in the corner. That, I would like to think, was nature’s gift for being patient with the other segments of the sanctuary. It must have been more than 6 feet long. Finally I could see the whole of a crocodile for so far my eyes meet scales floating on the water only. Soon after, I also saw a herd of spotted deer plucking juicy leaves and munching on them. It got me into thinking that may be this sanctuary that becomes a cinematic show of tourists in the winters to howl and jump at crocodiles alone, has a lot more to provide in the off seasons.