Bhitarkanika Wildlife Sanctuary
As the boat sailed past the mangrove forest, we were delighted to catch the first glimpse of a white breasted kingfisher. It was not an uncommon species but our countdown for kingfisher spotting had started. Bhitarkanika Wildlife Sanctuary is home to eight species of kingfishers. But it is not kingfishers but salt water crocodiles or estuarine crocodiles that are the flagship species of this little known sanctuary located in the Kendrapara district of Odisha, on the eastern coast of India.
Carved out of the forests that were once part of the old Kanika royal family, the sanctuary mainly consists of mangrove forests and a network of rivers. The 672 sq km sanctuary was notified in 1961. In 1998, the 145 sq km core area was declared a National Park. Based on its unique ecosystem, the sanctuary was declared a Ramsar Site in 2002.
The day before, we started from Bhubaneswar and drove down via Rajnagar to the Sand Pebbles Bhitarkanika Jungle Resort located near the Khola forest gate of the sanctuary. Don’t go by the ‘resort’ nomenclature. However, the place offers comfortable accommodation in well-appointed Swiss tents located in a natural setting. The resort is surrounded by agricultural land. The restaurant serves a smattering of Indian and Chinese dishes along with local Odiya cuisine.
After breakfast, we drove up to the Khola forest gate, where we obtained the permits to enter the sanctuary, paid for the cameras, and embarked on our boat journey. A forest guard accompanied us. We had hired a boat from the forest department. But private boats can also be hired.
As the boat cruised past the mangrove forest, through a network of riverine channels, we saw crocodiles of all sizes basking along the muddy banks. The crocs lay so still in the dark mud that we would often mistake them for logs, realising their presence only when they twitched their tails, probably expressing disgust at our stares. Some splashed into the water in an ungainly fashion and floated away. Their snouts peeping out of the water, the only sign of their presence.
There were birds aplenty. Bhitarkanika is also home to leopard cat, fishing cat, jungle cat, hyena, wild boar, spotted deer, sambar, porcupine, dolphin, etc.
Gahirmatha, one of the key nesting grounds of the endangered Olive Ridley sea turtle (Lepidochelys Olivacea), is also part of the Bhitarkanika Sanctuary.
Cruising past the forests, we docked at a place called Dangmal. As we crossed the jetty, we could see families of red crabs scurrying around in the muddy bank. A 4-km nature trail has been laid out through the Bhitarkanika Forest Block here for a closer look at the forest. We caught sight of spotted deer, wild boar, several kinds of birds and a monitor lizard. After a brief halt at the watch tower, we visited the old hunting post of the Kanika rulers and an old temple.
The walk came to an end at the tourist complex in Dangmal. A visit to the Interpretation Centre here acquainted us with the local flora and fauna. There is also a staying facility and a restaurant here.
All that walking had made us hungry and the lunch packed for us by the resort was a welcome sight as we boarded the vessel.
After another round of the sanctuary by boat, we returned to Khola and drove back to our accommodation.
Information: Bhitarkanika Wildlife Sanctuary is located in the Kendrapara district of Odisha. The best time to visit is between November and March. There are two entry points – Khola and Gupti – from where you have to obtain permits to enter the sanctuary. Rajnagar is also a convenient point from where a four-hour boat ride can take you to Dangmal.
Bhubaneswar is the nearest airport and a major railhead with onward connections to rest of the country. Cuttack is also a convenient road and rail link. The Khola forest gate is around 130km by road from Bhubaneswar.
Besides a few private resorts in and around the sanctuary, the forest department operates simply furnished accommodation in Dangmal and Gupti (Wildlife Warden Division Office at Rajnagar; Ph: 91-6729-272460, FAX: 91-6729-272464). We stayed at the Sand and Pebbles Bhitarkanika Jungle Resort (http://www.sandpebblestours.com/).
(Uttara Gangopadhyay can be contacted at email@example.com)