15 September 2013

bhitarkanika national park - the abode of the lord of saltwater

Before I tell you about my personal experiences at Bhitarkanika I must tell you a bit about the place. It is a huge deltaic mangrove forest amidst numerous creeks famous for its Saltwater Crocodiles, colloquially known to English-speakers as Salties because of their preference for brackish water. Bhitarkanika is a national park located in the delta of rivers Brahmani and Baitarani and located entirely within the district of Kendrapara. Brahmani branches off heavily before entering Bhitarkanika and one of its northern branches joins Baitarani to form river Dhamra which is the northern boundary of the mangroves. The main course of Brahmani forms the southern boundary while the numerous branches and anabranches of Brahmani form the crux of the mangroves. Salties were previously numerous along most deltas and estuaries on India’s eastern coast with the Bay of Bengal but with depleting mangroves most of them disappeared and are now found in isolated pockets only. We have a few salties at Sunderbans which is primarily famous for its Royal Bengal Tigers but their stronghold is Bhitarkanika and this is also because of the protection these forests have got both before independence and thereafter. Kendrapara is home to the erstwhile royalty of Kanika who took great pride in their mangroves and the labyrinth of creeks and rivers and protected them. Serious conservation is only possible with huge capital and though I don't know of the capital involved and if it’s really “huge”, the Indian government has definitely taken a note of it and as a result the Bhitarkanika creeks are flourishing with salties- the largest species in the crocodile family.

kendrapara district - home to BNP
Bhitarkanika was declared a wildlife sanctuary in 1975 with an area of 672 sq km out of which 145 sq km was declared a national park in 1998. The latest census puts a total count of more than 1500 of them and park officials say that at least one of them is a whopping 7 m long while four others at least 6 m long. The park is also famous for its white (not albino) salties that are around a dozen in number. It’s a totally different matter that internationally these lengths are taken with a fair bit of skepticism though Guinness has, on multiple occasions in 1994 and again in 2006, mentioned that the 7 m long saltie found here in Bhitarkanika is the longest crocodile in the world. The skepticism stands ground because independent measurements have never been actually made and are based on mere observations where a range of emotional amplification definitely creeps in. I am unsure if even a photograph of that 7 m long crocodile is available with the forest department. It’s true that a saltie that was found dead in 1995 and which measured 6 m and whose skeleton is now kept at the Dangmal Interpretation Centre itself is quite long but when we say 7 m we mean a full 1 m extra which croc experts will not believe unless they get tangible measurements. All this hullaballoo around superlative croc length from here has ensured that when people talk of salties, Bhitarkanika has to creep in – all the doubts notwithstanding.

bhitarkanika - a success story
The longest croc ever measured alive is Lolong who recently died in February, 2013 not far from the place where he was captured in Philippines. He was 20 ft 3 inches long (6.17 m) and thus far is the only croc measured alive longer than 20 ft though we have quite a few strong instances of crocs – from the recent past and now, who might have measured, or measure, around 20 ft – on the basis of actual tape measurements or observations followed by scientific extrapolation or skull sizes. And then there is always a debate going on with every measurement one does or any methodology one finds. But we know for sure that any croc longer than 18 ft is a truly gigantic croc and are rare in the wild or captivity. One thing affirms Bhitarkanika’s grand claim is the fact that salties grow all their lives and if conditions are favorable, which they are at Bhitarkanika with all the protection and ample food, they surely can reach 23 ft in length though experts say that rather than length crocs would grow outwards under such a scenario. So maybe there actually is a 23 ft long saltie somewhere in Bhitarkanika silently laughing at the helplessness of man and enjoying all the debates and discussions and skepticism surrounding it.

a huge saltie from BNP - © 2006 wildlife directorate, government of orissa
Now coming back to the day we left Bhubaneswar, early in the morning of 21st October, 2012 at 6 AM, for Bhitarkanika. It was the month of October and the onset of the tourism season in India. Bhitarkanika is not quite choked with tourists I would say but then considering India’s population very few places don't get the share of tourists they deserve. I must give you some background on the planning pertaining to this trip. I have a colleague at office, Prabhu, whose dad is a divisional police officer posted at Pattamundai, a major town in Kendrapara district. Bhitarkanika is a huge forest with many entry points but we had decided to enter from a place called Gupti. Had Bhitarkanika been the only point of our journey we could have got down at Bhadrak railway station and drove all the way till Chandbali on the banks of Baitarani river and from there entered Bhitarkanika via mechanized boats but since we were coming from Bhubaneswar we went via Pattamundai. Chandbali is located in the north of the park while Gupti Is located in the south. Earlier I had planned for a night halt at Bhitarkanika and had requested my colleague to get a room booked with the help of his dad but that somehow didn’t happen so we had to make it a day-long trip. So we would miss on a lot many things that are at Bhitarkanika or nearby it. We would miss the estuary of river Dhamra which has a couple of islands at its mouth including the famous sand island of Kanika and the controversial sea-port of Dhamra. We would also miss visiting Rajkanika, the headquarters of the erstwhile Kanika royalty whose palace is now a museum and houses amongst other things one of the longest croc skulls in the world. We would also miss visiting the Gahirmatha beach – famous for being one of the few and one of the largest nesting beaches for the Olive Ridley turtles. All this would have necessitated a stay of at least three days but we had only one day in hand. So from Gupti we had to go to Dangmal and return back. Dangmal has an Interpretation Centre (which has the 6 m long croc skeleton) and breeding facilities for salties but I was unsure if it could be possible to make a visit even there because of time crunch. We would have to be satisfied with the journey we would take from Gupti to Dangmal via the creeks, have some rest, lunch and then again back to Gupti because Bhubaneswar was quite far away.

the first view of the exotic mangroves
Now Prabhu was constantly in touch with me all this while in the journey and had given me the name and phone number of a forest officer at Gupti whom he had told to contact. He had also given me the name and phone number of a person from Dangmal for any assistance I would need. Since he wasn’t able to book a room at Dangmal for our stay he had at least arranged one for some rest – and we needed that. The journey from Bhubaneswar to Gupti via Cuttack, Kendrapara and Pattamundai was long. We crossed lush green fields and small dusty towns and reached Gupti at around 11 AM. But before calling the person whose contact number Prabhu had given I thought I should ask myself. I inquired for a boat till Dangmal to which a forest guard told me that there are few licensed boats that run here and all had pre-bookings. I was numb for a while. I thought that Prabhu definitely had made arrangements for us to rest at Dangmal but what if we didn’t get a boat till there at all. Will it be yet another case of so near, yet so far? My parents gave me a deserted look and I felt disappointed. By then Prabhu gave me a call and when I told him that there are no boats for us he told me that he had already booked one for me.

my parents inside the rock-solid boat at BNP
I felt blood running through my veins once again. He told me to hand over the phone to the forest guard and told me not to give any extra money to anyone except the formal charges of entry and the boat. He was such a smart guy. I had no idea that we had to do pre-booking of a boat too but Prabhu had done that for us. I couldn't have been any less thankful. He also told me that while I completed the entry formalities my parents could rest at the Gupti guesthouse. Such a nice man he was. I handed over the phone to the forest guard. He immediately recognized Prabhu. Prabhu was basically giving him instructions to allow us entry in the guesthouse and to get the boat ready for our trip. We entered the guest house and while my parents took some much-needed rest I went for the booking formalities. The total charges for entry and the boat was around Rs 2000 which I hadn't imagined. Actually I had no idea that the boats that ply in Bhitarkanika are specially made and licenses given via tender. This could be because the forest administration can’t afford a boat collapse in these creeks so full of salties which are known to be man-eaters. At the entry office I could see a group of hapless visitors who had also come without pre-bookings (Bhitarkanika Private Boat Association contact no - 8908225158) but probably had no Prabhu as a back-up help. I don’t know what happened to them because after I was done with my entry formalities I went ahead to pick my family from the guest house and move towards the boat. Prior to that I bought some eatables – mostly biscuits and mineral water, and told our car driver to wait for a few hours. The first look at the creek was amazing. It was huge with mangroves on both the sides. The boat was also huge and looked very strong. All of us boarded the boat and left for Dangmal. Mom made a mix of mudhi and chanachur for us and we had our fill in the first half an hour.

the first saltie we saw
We were told to keep an eye at the shore of the creek for any sign of salties. The journey to Dangmal would be around 2 hours long but it wouldn’t be boring at all though it was pretty much the same creeks and forests everywhere. We had our eyes fixed in the water and the creek because we desperately wanted to see at least one saltie – and Bhitarkanika didn’t disappoint us. Very soon, at a gentle turn in the creek, we came across a saltie basking at the shore. It stayed there for enough time for us to photograph it and since the boat wasn’t very far away the animal probably felt our presence and slipped into the water very quickly. It was a great sighting and we felt good. Very soon, the creek looked so full of water with some turbulence in it. Mom and I spotted parts of the body and the head of a saltie a few yards from our boat. That was a thrilling feel. The creeks are so full of them. At some places the sky was full of Asian Open-bill storks. Continuing in our journey the creek got wider and though we did see a few salties more they were quite at a distance. I also got to see a Painted stork wading through the shore waters looking for a meal. It was such a fantastic place. We soon reached Dangmal but a few hundred meters away from where our boat anchored the whole of us again saw a basking saltie with its mouth wide open.

the exotic BNP
We didn't have much to do at Dangmal. I had no idea that the Dangmal interpretation Centre was an important dekho. I gave a call to the number Prabhu had given me. He was supposed to assist us at the island. He directed us towards the guest house and told that the restaurant was nearby. We had to walk for more than a kilometer to reach the guest house. It was a beautifully landscaped place with Cheetals running helter-skelter. We rested at the guest house for a while. There was no where we could get tea though. How I wish we had pre-booked the rooms and stayed there for a night. It was an amazing place to be. I could have stayed there for a week. The restaurant was good too and we ordered four plates of vegetarian meal. We are non-vegetarians but avoid as much of it while on a vacation. The food was quite simple but good enough. Our family eats little and soon we were done. The family seated next to us had wasted so much of food and I felt angry. We had already spent more than an hour at the place and we had to go back to the boat and return to Bhubaneswar the same night. The boatman asked us if we wanted to go to the island where they had a palace of the Kanika kings. He told it would be a ride of another couple of hours from here and we didn’t have that much time so we politely refused. With the benefit of hindsight I wonder what that island could be. The palace I now know of the Kanika royalty (not kings as the boatman mentioned) is at Rajkanika which is outside the park and not located on any island. The boatman though did take us inside the narrow Suajore creek where they had a large heronry – a board said the largest on India’s east coast. Since it was located en-route we had no problems with it. We had to walk through a forest route and climb atop a high steel machaan to have a look at the heronry and big it was. 

bagagahan heronry, suajore creek, BNP
Everywhere I could see there were birds and more birds. Since it was at the side of the sun I couldn’t take nice photographs and left. On our return to Gupti we had our eyes yet again fixed to the shore and yet again we saw a few salties – a few on the shore and one in the water. But the best was saved for the last. While we were nearing Gupti, I spotted a huge saltie basking at the shore and there was a village nearby. Salties have a soft underbelly and they are not known to move much beyond the shore so there was no direct threat as such to the villagers except when contacts are sudden, direct or very close. Before I could tell the boatman he had already steered the boat towards the shore for a closer look at the saltie. It was a huge one. As we neared I got atop the boat and took quite a few pictures. It was the closest I had come to a saltie and it was a beautiful animal. It soon slipped into the water but I could capture its movement – though forgot to take a video which I should have. The journey to Bhitarkanika was complete. We had seen almost a dozen salties – big and small, far and near, at the shore and inside the water. Could we ask for more? Soon we reached Gupti from where our boat had taken off in the afternoon and lo and behold – we again saw a huge saltie at the opposite bank and it was a huge one too. Since it was quite far away and quite camouflaged and I was tired I didn’t take any picture.

the closest we could appraoch the lord
We had some tea, visited the nearby Durga puja pandal and left for Bhubaneswar. It was about to be dark. Prabhu meanwhile had called me and told me that he too was about to reach Pattamundai and we should meet him for a while. I couldn’t possibly have said a no though we were getting late. He had done so much for me. Without him the trip wouldn’t have been such hassle-free. We reached Pattamundai and it was already dark by then. We had to wait for a while before Prabhu and his family members arrived. His father was already there though. I was a guest at the office of a police officer for the first time. They were a very nice family. The whole of us were sitting in an open verandah and were having tea and snacks. It was great. Prabhu’s dad told us about the rising crime rates in his block. I told him that at Chilika, we could see the Irrawaddy dolphins at just one place and I suspected they were actually confined to that place via netting. He agreed to it and said it was done to provide greater protection. Freshwater dolphins are very rare and are poached for their oil which is expensive and used as a bait to catch catfish – a delicacy in many parts of India and elsewhere. Chilika is a huge place and to provide them protection in the entire lagoon area would have been a logistical nightmare and thus the confinement. Since the current population size is very small the government couldn’t have cared for inbreeding any less.

a glorious sunset to a beautiful day
We left in a while and reached Bhubaneswar at around 10 PM. The owner of the hotel had arranged the car for us for some Rs 1400 but since we had already crossed the 10 hour threshold he was asking for more. Ideally we should have paid him more but at that point of time I had no idea about this time limit. My dad wouldn't pay a penny extra but when he retired to the room I gave the owner Rs 100 more and told him not to tell dad and that I had no idea about the time limit. So thus came to end a fantastic day where we covered so many miles to visit Bhitarkanika – a palace where we saw so much and left so much that we could have seen. I would definitely return to the place sometime again.

3 comments:

  1. I enjoyed your blog a lot. Thank you for posting such wonderful insight. Hope to come here again and again.
    Thank You.
    Bhitarakanika National Park

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  2. I really appreciate your professional approach. These are pieces of very useful information that will be of great use for me in future.

    ReplyDelete