Wild Encounters at Odisha’s Bhitarkanika

- March 21, 2022
| By : Ambica Gulati |

Being the second-largest mangrove ecosystem in India, Bhitarkanika in Odisha is a wildlife enthusiast’s delight

Baby crocodiles sleeping in an enclosure.

All my life, I have dreamt of meeting animals in the wild and wondered what my reaction would be. But even I wasn’t prepared to call a deadly poisonous snake gazing at me beautiful.

With its rust-red skin shining bright, the coiled beauty gazes at me. My guide and boatman yells a warning, and I am paralysed, looking at the deadly creature just a few metres away from my foot. Fortunately, human noise startles it more and it quickly slithers into the dry leaves.

And then it rises, swaying side to side, trying to catch the sound waves of the enemy – us humans. I feel so sad that I cannot capture this amazing creature for posterity with my small camera lens.
“Nagin dance,” the boatman says. “No, it’s trying to locate us through sound waves,” I reply. He calls it a cobra. I am not sure about the species.

On the good part, it decides that the enemy wasn’t worth the time and disappears into the thicket. The encounter takes just a few seconds, but only when the leaves cover this slithering reptile, the three of us can breathe normally. We look at each other, pleased that none of us needed to be wild with a wild one. We don’t have any weapons either – only my DSLR and our smartphones.
This is why it’s important to stay on the marked trail and not wander inside the forest. You don’t know what other deadly creature you might step on.

The Ecosystem

Rich biodiversity, stunning landscapes, home to the endangered saltwater crocodile and a labyrinth of waterways, Bhitarkanika is touted as the ‘Amazon of India’. Bhitarkanika means inner beauty (bhitar meaning interior, kanika means beauty), and a boat ride through the waterways is the perfect way to experience this beauty.

A criss-cross network of rivulets and creeks, inundated with waters from rivers Brahmani, Baitarani, Dhamra and Patasala, Bhitarkanika is one of the best reptile refuges and the largest heronry in the country.

The pristine forest has three designated protected areas – the 367sq km Bhitarkanika National Park, the 672sq km Bhitarkanika Wildlife Sanctuary (BKWS) and the Gahirmatha Marine Sanctuary. The area, teeming with rich wildlife for centuries, was a hunting ground for the erstwhile kings of Kanika. But in 1975, Bhitarkanika was notified as a Wildlife Sanctuary.

A waterfowl follows us inside the trail.

Later in September 1998, with a core area of 145sq km within the vast surrounding expanse of the Bhitarkanika Wildlife Sanctuary, it was designated as a national park. And in 2002, Bhitarkanika was designated a Ramsar Site.

The fauna includes saltwater crocodiles (1358 in number), large Indian Lizard, poisonous snakes like the king cobra and non-poisonous snakes like python, rat snakes, more than 200 species of resident and migratory birds; and mammalian species such as spotted deer, sambar, fishing cat, otter, dolphins and more. The flora comprises 82 species of mangroves and associates.

The sea beach of Gahirmatha on the north-eastern border of the sanctuary is the famous mass nesting ground of thousands of Olive Ridley Sea turtles. There are 25 forest blocks and 410 villages within the sanctuary with a population of two lakh.

Back on the Trail

We have permission from the forest department to walk through the Bhitarkanika trail at Dangamal. This 3.5 km trail reveals small crabs on the banks, dancing butterflies, beautiful unique flowering trees and waterfowl in the water bodies.

We look at each other, asking if we are brave enough to walk on this isolated island in Bhitarkanika after an encounter with a snake, or should we turn back. Should we encounter another wild animal, we can’t even run to safety or swim in the water, as that is home to the deadlier crocodile. We sigh and carry on. After all, we are here to experience the wild.

Yes, we do end up seeing a swaying big cobra, which fortunately does not come our way hearing our sounds. We also see monkeys, waterfowl, a water monitor lizard and even a deer family.

The trail in a block of Kanika Range leads us to an ancient Shiva Temple. The snake’s discarded skin is lying on the ground. Closeby, there is a lotus pond and the ruins of the shooting towers of the Kanika Raja. We walk a few metres to climb the watchtower overlooking the meadows. Far away, a herd of deers is watching us, ready to scoot should we go closer.

Thankfully, on the way back, only lovely deers cross our path. We get into our boat to reach the opposite bank.

A pair of deer on full alert, ready to prance away

Inside the National Park

A Crocodile Conservation and Research Centre has been set up at Dangamal since 1975. Here, the crocodiles are reared and rehabilitated in the mangrove forests.

I see many adults and young ones during the awesome boat ride, sunning on the banks, seemingly innocent until the mouth opens wide. I also see kingfishers on the trees.

The boat ride is exhilarating, as it sails in the centre of the streams, avoiding the dangers of the crocodile-infested waters. And my mind goes to the movie Anaconda and Jaws – what if the reptiles decide to chase us. But the boatman assures me that no accident has ever taken place here. The creatures remain in their home as long as humans don’t disturb them and their habitats.

Now that we are on our way to the Interpretation Centre via a small nature trail, my guide tells me about his life. A sudden sound from the bush scares him. It’s a monitor lizard running away, not knowing that we were unaware of its presence.

We head to the hatchery and rearing centre but stop to peep into Gori’s enclosure. 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. There are two more enclosures, but the crocs have disappeared into the ponds as the sun is about to set.

At the hatchery, I peep into what seems like an empty enclosure in the far corner is an egg. In other enclosures are the babies, segregated as per their age, sleeping or apparently sleeping.

The museum houses crocodile skulls, information panels on mangroves, reptiles, turtles and a six-metre-long specimen of a croc. This knowledge centre within the park is now getting ready to host visitors as the government is building huts close to the gate.

The sheer size of the adults, which grow to more than 6m from snout to tail, make these remarkable predators the park’s flagship species. Crocodiles are at the apex of a pyramid linked to a food web that starts with algae and detritus sustaining shrimps and prawns.

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.

The forested area is dotted with ancient monuments such as Jagannath temple at Righagarh and Keradagarh, Panchubarahi temple at Satabhaya, the palace of ex-zamindar and more.

I enjoy some coconut water near the entrance before heading to the government resort 700m away. I only dream of the red creature that slithered away and the wild, wild world untouched by humans.

Jungle Rule Book

● Don’t forget to take your cameras and binoculars.
● It’s best to walk in groups as the trail is ridden with snakes and keep a lookout on the ground too.
● There are water bodies where visitors can watch birds.
● It is also advisable to wear life jackets while in the boat and not step close to the banks.
● Boats are arranged by the Forest Department as well as private operators at Khola and Gupti, besides Rajnagar and Chandbali. The boat ride from Khola to Dangamal is a popular route.
● Entrance fee to the national park is Rs 40, still camera fee is Rs 50

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