Biswajit Mohanty scout forests, wildlife sanctuaries, lakes and high seas of Odisha and get his breakneck life back in action
Odisha is a paradise for wildlife! The Olive Ridley sea turtles who arrive every year to breed on the Odisha coast have put the state on the international wildlife map. Many of my wildlife friends envy me for belonging to Odisha which is the only state in the country and the second place in the world where this unique event occurs. Turtle lovers throughout the world eagerly await this wonderful natural event when thousands of turtles congregate in the Odisha coast from October onwards. The best known site is Gahirmatha marine Sanctuary. Devi river mouth and Rushikulya river mouth are the two other spots where mass nesting takes place. The sea turtles are Odisha’s unique natural heritage and we are proud that nature has bestowed this privilege on us.
Mass nesting is one of nature’s rare events and I have been lucky to see this many times. Words fail to describe the wonderful sight of thousands of turtles heaving themselves up on the silvery beach to dig pits in the soft sand to lay their eggs. Like some self-programmed toys, they follow one after the other and soon the entire beach is full of turtles without even space for putting your foot.
The next event is the hatching of the baby turtles which is a synchronized happening as thousands of nests hatch approximately during a period of 3- 4 days. Every evening, the little ones clamber outside the nest and race towards the sea. They have to go fast since hungry predators lurk to devour them if they expose themselves too much.
Ranjeet Pattnaik an avid wildlife lover who unfailingly visits the nesting beach every year says “It is intriguing how they make a beeline for their water world without mother turtle to lead them.”
However, all is not well with the Ridleys of Odisha. Thousands die every year due to illegal fishing by trawlers in prohibited turtle congregation zones. The breeding adult population is dying and if this is not checked there will be a sudden population crash after 5-7 years. Olive Ridleys have an extremely poor survival rate since only 1 out of every 1,000 eggs laid hatches and grows up into an adult turtle and therefore protection of the breeding population is critical. Operation KACHHAPA, a turtle conservation program which is run by the author attempts to control this large scale mortality by a wide variety of measures which are now yielding results. But much more remains to be done before we can relax.
However, let us not forget that the state is also home to many other species of wildlife thanks to the wide diversity of natural habitats which the state possesses. To protect this invaluable wildlife wealth, the state government has declared several Wildlife Sanctuaries and National Parks.
The world famous Bhittarkanika mangroves forests are home to some of the world’s largest crocodiles. The salt water crocodiles are found here in large numbers. Beware of the salties! During nesting they can be quite nasty. The cold season is the best time to sight them. Take a country boat and enter the narrow creeks of Bhittarkanika and you will find these lovable giants lounging on the mud banks basking in the winter sun. We have the record of largest crocodile in the world having lived in Bhittarkanika which was shot by the king of Kanika.
Chilika lake is Asia’s largest brackish water lack with a water spread of approximately 900 sq. kms. Bird watching is an unforgettable experience which no one should miss. Just hire a boat and sail to Nalabana, the bird paradise which will transport you to another world. The only sound reflected over the tranquil waters of the lake is the joyful twitter of waterfowl as they bask in the pale morning sun. You shall be bedazzled by their myriad colours as they dive and feed in the lake waters. Chilika hosts nearly a million migratory waterfowl every year. They belong to nearly 240 species.
However, the lake is also world famous for another rare creature, the Irrawady dolphins. Irrawady dolphins are small dolphins which are found in river mouth and near shore sea waters. These dolphins stay in small family groups and love to gambol in the lake waters. They are quite friendly and sometimes come close to the boats. It is a wonderful sight to see the watchful mother closely guarding her calf and teaching her how to catch the lake fish. Songkhla lake in Thailand is the only other place in the world which has a lake population of dolphins.
No wonder, many foreign cetacean researchers and lovers are attracted to this lake. However, the rampant growth of dolphin tourism, use of new types of fishing nets, proliferation of shrimp farms is now threatening this population.
As you travel inland in the forested hills and valleys you will encounter a wide variety of forest animals like elephants, tigers, leopards, sambhar, deer,etc.
The best place to see tigers is Satkosia. This sanctuary has been recently declared as a tiger reserve and the central government has stepped in to provide more funds for better protection of tigers. Satkosia has a good elephant population and is part of a bigger forest area stretching from Badamba- Narsinghpur to Rairakhol forests . This huge area of more than 5,000 sq.kms. enables the wildlife to migrate and spill over thereby providing them a big natural habitat for feeding and breeding.
The river Mahanadi courses through the deep Satkosia Gorge. Never miss a boat ride in the Mahanadi. It is a mind boggling experience floating down this 22 kms stretch of Mahandi from Binka to Kamaladiha! The steep hill slopes dip into the river on both sides and you are shadowed by the high hills as you sail down the tranquil waters of Mahandi. Both species of crocodiles i.e., the gharial and the mugger are sighted here. You can also sight river turtles basking on the rocks on the banks of the river.
Simlipal Tiger Reserve is spread over 2,750 sq.kms in the district of Mayurbhanj. It has wonderful rest houses dating from the Maharaja’s time dotting the wide expanse of the park. Simlipal is a water rich area and you will be amazed by the huge number of streams which flow perennially in this area. There are wonderful waterfalls at Joranda and Barheipani. Simlipal is a treasure house of orchids and more than 90 varieties have been listed here. You will find a profusion of orchids flowering during spring and early summer. Their attractively coloured flowers look like precious jewels stuck high on the tree branches.
Dr. S.K. Dutta, Professor of Zoology at North Odisha University says: “There is the need for more field surveys in Simlipal since we have yet to completely document its rich reptile and amphibian fauna.” Dr. Dutta is credited with the discovery of several new species of frogs in the state during after his extensive surveys since the last two decades.
Elephants are in abundance in this park. You will find herds of chital and sambhar grazing in the meadows when you drive through the Park. The place is also a paradise for bird watchers since you find many forest species like crested tree swift, red spur fowl, black shouldered kite, crested serpent eagle, brown fish owl, hill myna. In fact, the place is famous for hill myna and once upon a time, the forest department used to run a thriving business, catching the chicks from the tall sal trees and rearing them at Jashipur. They used to be exported in large numbers to foreign countries where a huge demand existed since the hill myna is a talking bird and can closely mimic human voice.
I must warn would be visitors to Simlipal that do not except the tiger to lurk around every corner you drive through. Though the Park is well known for its tigers, their numbers have fallen drastically during the last decade and latest census by the Govt. of India reveals a population of around 20. It is difficult to spot tigers unless you spend a considerable amount of time in the Park.
Another wonderful place to visit in Odisha is Barbara forests near Balugaon. This place is about 150 kms away from Bhubaneswar and is protected by the CRPF since there are valuable teak trees which more than 70-80 years old. It has a wonderful population of bison and sambhar which you can see when you drive to Mahisagoth or Rajin. Birds like Indian pied hornbill, yellow billed blue magpie, fantail flycatchers are also found here.
The blue green waters of Mahanadi river are a wonderful habitat for fresh water turtles which have disappeared from most rivers in India due to large scale poaching. You can see Chitra Indica, Gangeticus, Hurum species in this river. Some of the fresh water turtles can grow upto 70 kgs. Due to efforts of local communities, poaching is now controlled to a large extent and in fact at some locations the turtle population have recovered leading to an unwanted consequence! Turtles have started damaging the fishing nets and fishermen are now clamouring for compensation!
Odisha’s incredible wildlife wealth needs to be preserved for the future so that our children shall be true inheritors of this state’s natural heritage. We should keep a careful and close watch on the state of our wildlife sanctuaries to ensure that its wildlife is safe and well protected.