Human Vs. Crocodile
Ranjan Mandal (34) of Talachua village within Bhitarkanika National Park in Kendrapara district of Odisha tried to flee from the river before a salt water crocodile knocked him down with a leap, tore into his throat, and dragged his limp body into the river.
“I tried to chase the crocodile, but I couldn’t find any way”, said Mahadev Mandal, another of the four men fishing that day in April.
The Bhitarkanika mangrove forest and creeks are the home to perhaps the world’s largest population of estuarine crocodiles as well as at least fifty thousand poorest people of the district. Despite decades of attempts to keep the crocodiles at bay, they still kill about a dozen people every year.
Human beings and salt water crocodiles are locked in a grim battle in the Bhitarkanika. Bhitarkanika is the second largest mangrove forest in India after the Sundarbans. It has a unique eco-system, criss-crossed by a network of rivers and creeks which are infested with more than 1600 crocodiles.
Dangamal is one of the villages within the park. Some of the other villages in the area are Nalatiapata, Raimundia, Talachua ,Vekta, Gupti, Rajendranagar, Sailendranagar, Subarnapur, Raghabapatia, Pataparia, Bagapatia etc.
The rear-and-release programme by the Salt Water Crocodile Conservation and Research Centre at Dangamal has not only thwarted the threat of extinction faced by the reptiles but has also resulted in a substantial increase. But while the crocodiles are prospering, thousands of people living in and around Bhitarkanika are struggling for survival. They do not have enough economic activity to support them.
The poor of our society have traditionally depended on the forest and river for their survival. But their interests are often suppressed for the greater cause of preserving the eco-system. Human beings are a neglected species in Bhitarkanika, said Shivendu Narayan Bhanjadeo, the scion of royal family of Rajkanika.
The villagers are mostly engaged in fishing, farming and wood collecting. But the land and resources at the disposal of the people are not adequate to support them. They have to venture down the river which is a source of livelihood to them. Boating on the river exposes the villagers to attacks by salt water crocodiles. Pratima Mallick (32) of village Dharampur was killed on May 19,2008 by a crocodile while she was bathing in the river Baitarani. Rangalata Pati (57) wife of Parameswar Pati of village Dangamal was killed by a crocodile on, April 23 last year.
Debendra Das of village Ardimua was killed by a crocodile last year. Madhusudan Behera a forest guard was also killed by a crocodile five years ago in Dangamala village. Shyam Mandals son Ganesh Mandal, had gone on fishing two years back but was killed by a crocodile in the creek.
Bidyadhar Rout (27) of Barajapur was attacked by a crocodile on May 4 last year and he sustained serious injuries while he was fishing in the river Baitarani. The villagers admitted him in the SCB Medical College and Hospital for his treatment. But he died on June 10 last year. Bidyadhar had married two years back. “Days and nights I used to tell my husband not go into the crocodile-infested rivers and do something else for a living, but he always replied, how will we eat then? My husband’s younger brother used to accompany my husband but now I simply refuse to let him go. We work as domesticated helps for a living. We earn less and we suffer. But if my husband’s younger brother gets killed, we will all die”, said Tilotama (24) the widow Bidyadhar
Now, experts fear environmental changes and shrinking land could lead to more crocodile-human conflicts, with disastrous results for both. Villagers who can no longer grow enough crops are venturing into the river—the home of the reptiles—in search of fish, crabs and honey to sell. And crocodiles are creeping ever closer to villagers in search of fresh water and food, according to Dr Sudhakar Kar, a noted herpetologist and a former forest officer of the state who track their movement. “Locals should not fish in the rivers and creeks in Bhitarkanika as it is too dangerous for them. Bhitarkanika is the home of 1664 crocodiles as per last year’s census”, said Dr Kar.
The predator’s long shadow looms large over village life. Crocodiles are fixtures in folk songs and mud-roofed shrines. Honey and mud crab collectors in Bhitarkanika walk barefoot into the knotted woods, armed only with a thick branch and an earthen pot to collect honey and crab braving the crocodiles and vipers. “To ward off crocodiles, we fenced about 30 ponds in Bhitarkanika and instructed villagers not to enter the deep water of the ponds as often crocodiles strays into the ponds from the rivers”, said Manoj Mohapatra the divisional forest officer of Bhitarkanika.
“Of course people are scared, but that sense of fear has always been there. Despite the fear, the villagers also prize the crocodiles because they know the reptiles are all that’s keeping the crowded outside world from encroaching on their homes.
“Without the crocodiles,” said Manas Jena of Gupti village, a fisherman who was mauled last year, “there would be no jungle.”
But it’s also true that without the crocodile Sabita Maiti‘s husband Prakash would still be alive. A crocodile killed the fisherman 12 years ago, and his widow still dresses all in white, the colour of mourning. “The crocodile is an enemy,” said Sabita. “If I could, I would curse the crocodile. I would tell him, ‘You have ruined me.”
As hard as life is, the villagers can’t leave Bhitarkanika because they have nowhere else to go. Many are descended from families that came here generations ago as landless migrants from Bangladesh. This menacing forest was the last frontier, and their last chance.
By Ashis Senapati from Bhitarkanika