Boats at Khola, Bhitarkanika

Exploring the mangroves of Bhitarkanika, Odisha

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Natural land builders and carbon sinks, mangroves are home to a resilient and unique ecosystem which conservationists and researchers love

This is my first visit to a mangrove. The second largest mangrove system in India, Bhitarkanika means inner beauty (bhitar meaning interior, kanika means beauty). The area, teeming with rich wildlife for centuries, was a hunting ground for the erstwhile kings of Kanika. Touted as the ‘Amazon of India’, it is one of the best reptile refuges and the largest heronry in the country.

A mangrove is a shrub or tree that grows in coastal saline or brackish water. The oldest known fossils of mangrove palm date 75 million years back.

Home of the salt water crocodile, Bhitarkanika National Park, Odisha
Home of the salt water crocodile, Bhitarkanika National Park, Odisha

Located in Kendrapara district, Bhitarkanika National Park is a sanctuary for salt-water crocodiles and also has a crocodile rearing and hatchery at the Dangamal gate. The sheer size of the adults, which grow to more than 6m from snout to tail, make these predators the park’s flagship species. Crocodiles are at the apex of the food web pyramid that starts with algae and detritus sustaining shrimps and prawns.

Forest Area

Bhitarkanika is the delta of Brahman and Baitarani rivers, and is an estuary, criss-crossed by rivulets and creeks, inundated with waters from rivers Brahmani, Baitarani, Dhamra and Patasala.

Bhitarkanika was the first area in Odisha to be notified as a wildlife sanctuary in 1975. The sanctuary is spread over Rajnagar and Rajkanika blocks and covers a geographical area of 672 sq.km, but the forest area is only 163.4 sq. km, comprising 25 forest blocks which are not reserved forest. There are 410 villages within the sanctuary with a population of over two lakh.

The flora comprises 82 species of mangroves and associates. The fauna includes 1,358 saltwater crocodiles, large Indian lizard, poisonous snakes like king cobra and non-poisonous snakes like python, rat-snakes, and mammalian species like spotted deer, sambar, fishing cat, otter, dolphins. Over 215 bird species and flocks of black ibis, darters, bar-headed geese, brahminy ducks, pintail, terns, seagulls and woodpeckers frequent the Baga Gahana tract in Bhitarkanika. It is the home of the endangered white-bellied sea eagles, golden plovers and Eurasian curlews. There are eight different species of kingfisher.

Bhitarkanika was declared as a Ramsar site (wetland of international importance) in 2002. In a three-hour span, I spot a few herons, kingfishers, spotted deers, crabs, water fowl, giant monitor lizard, encounter a glittery red snake, and watch the crocodiles sunbathing.

Large Indian lizard, Dangamal, Bhitarkanika National Park, Odisha
Large Indian lizard, Dangamal, Bhitarkanika National Park, Odisha

In 2018, the Global Mangrove Watch Initiative estimated the total global mangrove forest area at 137,600 km2 (53,100 sq mi), spanning 118 countries. Human activity, an annual global deforestation rate estimated at 0.16%, and per-country rates as high as 0.70%, is resulting in mangrove loss.

Conservation

There are three conservation units in Rajnagar division, namely Bhitarkanika sanctuary, Bhitarkanika National Park, and Gahirmatha Marine sanctuary. The sea beach of Gahirmatha on the north-eastern border of the sanctuary is the famous mass nesting ground of Olive Ridley Sea turtles, which nest during the winter and spring.

A ride in the wilderness

Crocodile sunbathing on the shores of Bhitarkanika mangrove forest, Odisha
Crocodile sunbathing on the shores of Bhitarkanika mangrove forest, Odisha

The boat safari is exciting. I start the ride to Dangmal from Khola gate. One of my wild dreams has been to meet a king cobra or a crocodile in their natural habitat. But the wild greets you in a different way. It also likes silence. Even though, I didn’t have the big lens for my DSLR and binoculars, I enjoy the sounds of the jungle, and watch the seemingly innocent crocodiles on the sunny banks. My guide said that there had never been an accident, for a fall meant meat for the crocodiles. On the safer side, I sit in the centre of the boat, avoid hanging too close to the railings. The boat glid slowly over the ripples, just a tiny whirr of the engine. But I guess the animals are used to this. The big-eyed deers watch from the shores and the birds sit high on the trees. The crocodiles didn’t bother, maybe they knew their ferocious reputation was enough to keep humans at bay.

Walk in the wild

Beautiful trail on an island in Bhitarkanika Mangrove Forest, Odisha
Beautiful trail on an island in Bhitarkanika Mangrove Forest, Odisha

We all dream but how the dream will manifest, we can never know. We have permission from the forest department to walk through the Bhitarkanika trail on a deserted island at Dangmal. This 3.5 km trail reveals small crabs on the banks, dancing butterflies, unique flowering trees and waterfowl in the water bodies. The afternoon light is dimming and we only have an hour to explore. It’s not advisable to stay around till dusk, for even with the forest cameras, the eerieness and the predators reign. There are no humans here.

Red snake slithers on an island inside Bhitarkanika Mangrove Forest, Odisha
Red snake slithers on an island inside Bhitarkanika Mangrove Forest, Odisha

A few metres on the path and suddenly my guide and boatman yells a warning. A red beauty is coiled close to my foot, gazing, perhaps equally startled. I am frozen to the spot, somewhere my brain clicks that more disturbance in the wild means more danger. The red snake and I gaze at each. We don’t know if this is a deadly poisonous snake or not. But luckily, it decides that the enemy didn’t deserve attention and slithers quietly into the dry leaves. A few metres on safe ground, and I am still frozen along with my companions, it rises. It sways to catch the sound waves. I am a little more relaxed now that the snake doesn’t appear to be vengeful, but watchful like us. My guide calls it a cobra but I am not sure about the species. Finally, it disappears. In just a few seconds, we had lost touch with our breath. Despite a hesitant should we or should we not continue the walk, we do. I did meet the snake in his home!

We stick to the marked trail. Just a few more metres, and another snake is swaying, and it too slithers away hearing human sounds. We also see monkeys, waterfowl, a large monitor lizard and even a deer family.

Deer family watches, Bhitarkanika Mangrove Forest, Odisha
Deer family watches, Bhitarkanika Mangrove Forest, Odisha

The trail leads us to an ancient Shiva Temple. I spot a snake’s skin. There is a lotus pond and the ruins of the shooting towers of the Kanika Raja close by. We walk further to a watchtower overlooking the green expanse. Gentle deers are all around and some more gentle ones cross our path on the way back to the boat.

Inside the National Park

Just a quick turn and we are on the jetty on the opposite shore, where a trail leads to the main entrance of the Bhitarkanika National Park.

In 1975, a Crocodile Conservation and Research Centre was set up here at Dangmal. It has been successful in rearing and rehabilitating crocodiles in the mangrove forests. On our way to the Interpretation Centre via a small nature trail, a sudden sound from the bush startles us again. It’s a monitor lizard scooting to safety. I am glad that the animals are running away on their own, because with my equipment, I wouldn’t have been able to outpace the agile ones.

The enclosure has a hatchery and rearing centre. At the hatchery, I peep into an empty enclosure, until I spot an egg in a far corner. There are more enclosures and the babies are kept segregated according to their age. They all appear to be sleeping—the proverbial crocodile stillness.

Crocodile Skeleton, Bhitarkanika National Park, Odisha
Crocodile Skeleton, Bhitarkanika National Park, Odisha

There is also a museum close to this centre. It houses crocodile skulls, information panels on mangroves, reptiles, turtles and a six-metre-long specimen of a croc.

There are three water enclosures housing lone crocodiles. One is Gori—the light coloured 22-ft-long Gori (meaning ‘fair’) is a white female saltwater crocodile. She was hatched in an artificial hatchery from the first clutch of eggs collected from nature in Kali-bhanjadia in August 1975. There were two unsuccessful mating attempts, one of which ended in a nasty fight with her losing an eye. Since then, she remains alone in this enclosure. I couldn’t see any croc in the other two enclosures, presuming they were hiding under water.

Importance of mangroves

Mangrove forests are also effective at carbon sequestration and storage and mitigate climate change. Mangroves sequester approximately 24 million metric tons of carbon annually. Most mangrove carbon is stored in soil and dead roots, aiding in the conservation and recycling of nutrients beneath forests. Mangrove forests can decay into peat deposits and this is also an effective carbon sink.

Mangroves stabilize the creek banks and the deltaic land mass as a whole. The roots help in soil formation through deposition of soil and sediments flow through the river and the creeks. Network of these roots prevent bank erosion and control flood damage and stabilize the banks, creeks and rivers.

They absorb the fury of cyclonic winds and save the area from sea-water ingress and devastation by cyclonic storms.

The mangroves enhance considerably the productivity of marine and estuarine fish, prawns and crabs which contributes to income and nutrition for the local community.

Water bodies inside Bhitarkanika Mangrove Forest island, Odisha
Water bodies inside Bhitarkanika Mangrove Forest island, Odisha

Various parts of the mangrove plants and their associates are used by the local inhabitants for house construction, fuel wood, thatching (mainly Phoenix leaves), fencing material, agricultural implements, furniture, boat making, basket and mat making.

The local people depend on mangrove vegetation for collection of honey (above 50 quintals), wax and medicinal plants. Dalei tribes in Bhitarkanika use the herbs and other plant materials for treatment and remedies of ailments.

There are few mangrove species and the mangrove ecosystem provides a habitat for over 174 marine megafauna species.

Threats to Mangroves

● Illegal conversion of forest land to agriculture and aquaculture
● Illegal conversion of forest land for human habitation and settlement of villages
● Laying of saline embankments and bunding of the creeks
● Illicit collection of wood
● Grazing of cattle
● Use of pesticides in the agricultural fields of the surrounding ecosystem
● Hunting of wildlife/collection of wildlife products

Man-made attractions in Bhitarkanika

There are a number of ancient monuments such as the Shiva temple inside Bhitark

There are more ancient monuments inside such as Jagannath temple at Righagarh and Keradagarh, Panchubarahi temple at Satabhaya, palace of ex-zamindar and more small structures.

Jungle book

● National park entrance fee is Rs 40, still camera fee is Rs 50. Movie cameras cost more.
● Do carry your cameras and binoculars in waterproof backpacks.
●You need permits to walk on designated islands. Walk in groups as the trail is ridden with reptiles and keep a lookout on the ground too. Avoid sitting on the ground. There are water bodies for birdwatching.
● Boats are run by the Forest Department and private operators at Khola, Gupti, Rajnagar and Chandbali. It costs INR 3,000. Best to wear life jackets during the boat ride and avoid going close to the banks.
● Do not play loud music or eat in the forest and leave behind plastic water bottles and packets.

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