The Paradise On The Earth
The Bhitarkanika National Park in Kendrapara district of Odisha is the second largest mangrove forest in the country after the mangrove forest in Sundarban in the neighbouring state of West Bengal. It has a unique eco-system, crisis-crossed by a network of rivers and creeks, which are infested with more than 1600 crocodiles
In a bid to conserve the complex and fragile mangrove ecosystem and the endangered flora, fauna associated with Bhitarkanika, which constituted the ex-zamindary forests of Kanika Raj, the government declared it a sanctuary in 1975 covering 672 square kilometres. Subsequently, in the year 1998, the core area of Bhitarkanika Wildlife Sanctuary comprising 145 square kilometres was declared a national park because of its ecological, faunal, floral, geomorphological and zoological association and importance and for the purpose of protection.
“With the initiation of the government of India under United Nations Development Project (UNDP), crocodile breeding and management early in 1975, a scheme for the conservation of saltwater crocodiles, was implemented by the forest department of state in Dangamala, the heart of the park, with the purpose of quickly multiplying the population using the grow and release techniques to save the endangered reptile. During the last three decades, the maximum emphasis was laid on collection of wild laid eggs from the national park for safe project hatchery incubation by simulating the natural conditions, rearing the young ones under sound husbandry conditions and release of the crocodiles in the water bodies of the park. The rear-and-release programme through 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. Bhitarkanika is the home to 1664 crocodiles as per last year’s census. It is also the abode of the largest crocodile of the world as per the Guinness Book of World Record. A 39-year-old albino crocodile ‘Gori’ is the cynosure of many visitors in a pen at Dangamal. In 1975, only 97 crocodiles were residing in Bhitarkanika,” said Dr Sudhakar Kar, a noted herpetologist and the former research officer of forest and wildlife department of Odisha.
Three species of crocodiles salt water crocodile, Mugger and Gharial breeding rearing programme had been started in 1975 in 34 places in West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and other states in India. But the salt water crocodile conservation programe in Bhitarkanika is the most successful one due to efforts of forest officials, researchers , added Dr Kar.
The Bhitarkanika also represents a charming mystery. Every year innumerable people visit this unique forest. Its exceptional scenic beauty and rich wildlife and birds can be source of attraction to different levels of people and is convenient for outdoor recreation. Thousands of migratory birds each winter arrive in the mangrove forest and water bodies of the Bhitarkanika as part of their annual winter sojourn.
“Large numbers of migratory water birds like Gadwall, pintail, lesser whistling duck teal, geese, stork,geese, swans, grebes, rails, coots, sandpipers, plovers, skimmers, and other water birds arrive in each winter”, said Bimal Pradsan Acharya the divisional forest officer of Bhikarkanika national park.
Bhitarkanika is also the home to migratory avian species like northern pintail, gull- billed tern, Common Sand Piper, bar-headed geese , geese, red kite, ruddy, teal, pintail, gadwall, little grebe, spot-billed pelican , lesser flamingo including 85 species of migratory birds. The Bagagahan ,a heronry of avian species within the park is also a temporary abode for the nesting birds. The huge gathering of birds in Bagagahana and their activities is a visual treat. The birds often frequent open wetlands adjoining the mangrove forest which has enough fish, prawns, frogs, snakes and molluses. The area provides an extensive feeding ground for the creatures because of the availability of abundant fish in the river and creeks, and the distance of its location from human habitats. Its water bodies, regulated by tides, provides, a congenial atmosphere for the birds to settle in the park. The tides rise and recede in every quarter of the day and tidal amplitude here varies frequently. High tides followed by ebb tides ensure ample fish supply for the birds, added the forest officer.
“During his visit to Bhitarkanika in 1981, the noted ornithologist Salim Ali had suggested that the government declare the park as a biosphere reserve and get it scientifically surveyed. But the request and the cacophony of the birds probably fell on deaf ears. No action has followed so far”, said Sudhanshu Parida an environmentalist and the secretary of Kendrapara district unit of Peoples for Animal.
Bhitarkanika has 82 species of mangroves including many sub-species. During super cyclone that ravaged the state on 29th October, 1999, many villages in and around Bhitarakanika mangrove forest, suffered far less damage. But other seaside villages like Earasama block of Jagatasinghpur district were washed away in the tidal waves. Mangrove forests provide a formidable natural barrier against cyclones and storms surges and play an important part in stabilising the shore line. They also serve as the nesting and breeding ground various terrestrial, arboreal, benthic and aquatic organisms.
“The existence of a hunting tower in the core areas of Bhitarkanika indicates that the royal family members of Rajkanika were hunters . Earlier, the hunting tower was in a dilapidated condition, and visitors pass by even without noticing it. But now this tower is the cynosure of the tourists. In Raj period animals were hunted for prestige as well as for taking trophies. Hunting was a sport for centuries, the consequences were larger during the British Raj due to the use of far superior firepower and an interest to hunt shared by a much larger number of colonial aristocrats including the Raja of Rajkanika”, said Biraja Pati an environmentalist and the secretary of Nature’s Club of Kendrapara.
Bhitarkanika national park, the internationally acclaimed Ramsar wetland site, still waits for its turn to be conferred the UNESCO’s World heritage site tag.
The national park figured in the tentative list of future heritage site of the global body in 2009. The unique mangrove cover and wetland spots have in the meanwhile made its way to final list of heritage sites in 2014. However the nature lovers eagerly wait for the conferment of the coveted stature upon the famous eco-system.
“Earlier in 1984, UNESCO declared the Sun temple at Konark as the only World Heritage Site of the state. We hope Bhitarkanika will get tag of World Heritage Site soon. The World Heritage Site tag for the India’s second largest mangrove forest Bhitarkanika will enable more funding from the government and different international agencies and it would get more tourists particularly overseas tourists. Only countries that have signed the World Heritage Convention, pledging to protect their natural and cultural heritage, can submit nomination proposals for properties on their territory to be considered for inclusion in UNESCO’s World Heritage List”, said Dr Sunil Patnaik a noted archaeologist and the secretary of the government run Orissa Institute of Maritime and South East Asian Studies (OIMSEAS) .
“ We presented our case before a team of UNESCO last year and we hope they will include Bhitarkanika in World Heritage list. Bhitarkanika is a unique eco-system, highly dynamic and at the same time fragile. The delta, river mouth, the sea , mangrove forest, avifauna, reptiles, amphibians and varieties of fauna and flora are various aspects contributing to the richness of its biological diversity”, said the divisional forest officer of Bhitarkanika. The ministry of environment and forest issued a notification on 16th June identifying the ESZ covering 193 villages within two kilometers from Bhitarkanika National Park and Gahiramatha marine sanctuary within the park known as the world’s largest rookery of the sea turtles. The ESZ varies from 560 meters to two kilometers width from the boundary of Bhitarkanika and Gahiramatha covering an area of 446.40 square kilometers. The eco-sensitive zone status would not hamper day-to-day activities and livelihood of the locals. The activities in the eco-sensitive zones would be of a regulatory nature rather than prohibitive nature. It will also impose a blanket ban on felling of trees and setting up of polluted plants factories, shrimp farms and saw mills in the area. Commercial use of natural water resources, including groundwater harvesting and setting up of hotels and resorts, are regulated in these areas, added the forest officer.
The Eakakula and Hukitola beaches within Bhitarkanika are reported to be the major breeding grounds of the horseshoe crab . We are giving emphasis on the horseshoe crab conservation due to its medicinal value. Known as the “living fossil” the neglected horseshoe crab is the latest to join the long list of endangered species in Wildlife Protection Act. Considered an important organism for its medicinal value in pharmaceutical, clinical and food industries, the horseshoe crab is also useful as an indicator of the health of the coastal zone”, added the forest officer.
“The horseshoe crab is an amazing creature. The name horseshoe comes because its shell resembles a horse’s hoof. Their long survival has given us opportunities to know more about the immuno-defensive mechanisms and perfection in their biological and physiological processes”, he added.
According to B.K. Rath the former superintendent of State Archeological Department “It is interesting to note that there are temples, sculptures, mud forts and lots of pottery dateable to the 10th -11th century A.D in Bhitarkanika. A forest road from the water front leads to the temple of “Nahak Babu” and other structures nearby. Nahak Babu temple is a renovated Khakhara temple enshrining Durga, Uma-Maheswar and other sculptures. Another small but compact and beautiful temple in sand stone of reddish hue is also found nearby. While ancient temples are found in Bhitarkanika , old sculptures are also found in the village Dangamal. Four medium –sized beautiful sculptures of Mahisamardini Durga, Anantasayani Vishnu and Gangadhara image of Shiva are in Dangamal”.
Each winter the magnificent Olive Ridley sea turtles start their long journey to Odisha sea water to lay eggs. The turtles repeat the trek every year, always to return to the same beach in order to lay their eggs and reproduce where they were born.
The protected beaches in Gahiramatha beach of Kendrapara district is the world’s largest nesting site for the Olive Ridley (Lepidochelys olivacea). Farther south, the shores of Rushikulya in Ganjam district is also another nesting site of endangered sea turtles. In huge waves , thousands of Olive Ridley turtles each year return to the beaches of Gahiramatha and Rushikulya to lay their eggs.
“Apart from Odisha, Olive Ridley sea turtles also lay eggs in large numbers in the coasts of Mexico and Coast Rica. The best months to see Olive Ridley sea turtles are between November to March. Olive Ridleys are known for their huge arribadas, or egg-laying episodes, where half a million turtles come ashore to lay their eggs. On a given night, visitors can usually spot between ten to hundred female turtles laying eggs. Nesting sea turtles arrive one by one in Gahiramatha and Rushikulya where thousands of turtles storm the shore en masse. Scientists, students, researchers and volunteers work diligently at these turtle rookeries.
Female sea turtles have an inherent nesting instinct that drives them back to their natal beach to lay eggs. The nesting of sea turtles is one of nature’s most amazing spectacles. The sea turtle is without a doubt the most important attraction at the Odisha coast, in fact this specie was the main reason for the creation of declaring Gahiramatha as a marine sanctuary in 1997 by the central government.
Sea turtles are most frequently seen when the females come ashore to deposit their eggs on beaches, usually at night. Only one of every 1,000 baby turtles will survive to reach adulthood, and Odisha is one of a handful of areas in the world that protects turtle nesting sites. An average of 400,000 Olive Ridley sea turtle lay eggs in Gahiramatha . This is important to keep this shelter, because we have a phenomenon almost unique in the world,”said Rabindra Sahoo a sea turtle researcher.
The female turtles arrive at the coast at the dead of the night and after laying eggs and later they get back into the deep sea water. Hatchlings emerge from these eggs after 45-60 days and find their way to the sea creating a cacophony. It is one of the Nature’s rare phenomenon where babies grow without their mother. The arribada , a Spanish term used for mass nesting phenomenon, generally occurs during the mid week of January to end of February as it has been seen in past couple of years that the mass nesting phenomenon has occurred at Odisha coast during the specified period, added Sahoo.
By Ashis Senapati from Bhitarkanika