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ECO-WATCH

Uneasy neighbours

Bhitarkanika is a reptilian refuge, but its human neighbours aren't too comfortable with the inhabitants. Who is to blame, asks BIBHUTI MISHRA.

N. BALAJI

Conflict is inevitable ... frequent human intrusion and a large crocodile population.

IT's a bit of a paradox. The Bhitarkanika wildlife sanctuary is a haven for crocodiles. But now with the reptiles prospering, people on the periphery of the sanctuary are nervous especially while out fishing or gathering wood. About 30 people have fallen victim to crocodiles since 1989. But villagers put the number at more than 100. It's not only human life in danger but cattle too.

Bhitarkanika has a variety of habitats and climatic conditions. Because food and shelter is not a limiting factor in Bhitarkanika, it is home to the largest number of estuarine crocodiles in the country. The longest estuarine crocodile of the world measuring more than seven metres long is located here.

Around the mid-1970s, the population of these salt water crocodiles, locally known as "Baula kumbhira", decreased, leaving only a small viable population in the main Bhitarkanika river and a few adjoining creeks. This was mostly due to poaching and indiscriminate hunting. So a conservation programme was launched by Orissa Government, with assistance from the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nation's Development Programme (UNDP). It was mooted in 1975 by Dr. H.R. Bustard, FAO/UNDP Consultant. The 672 sq. km mangrove habitat was declared as the Bhitarkanika Wildlife Sanctuary (April 22, 1975) to protect the salt water crocodiles. Illegal trapping and killing of the reptile was stopped. The practice of collection of eggs from the wild and their subsequent incubation was preferred to build up the depleted population. The reared crocodiles (of 1.2 m in length) were released into the creeks. Every year about 100 hatchlings are released. The very first crocodile hatchling was Gauri, now 28 years old.

The UNDP stopped its financial aid in 1983 and thereafter the project has been handled by the State forest department; 145 sq. km of the sanctuary area was declared a national park in 1998.

Annual census of crocodiles is undertaken in the mid-winter, by direct sighting in various creeks and rivers both day and night. In fact as per the census last year, the population of the estuarine crocodiles stands at a little over 1,300. But wildlife experts put the number at 5,000, and the villagers even more!

The villagers have reasons to peg the number so high because they have fallen victim to crocodile attacks over the years. There are many who believe that the project has been fatal to human existence in this area

Attacks have been reported at Anantpur, Bajpour and Jaykunda villages. However Rajnagar Mangrove Wildlife Division Divisional Forest Officer Anup Nayak is loathe to find fault with the crocodiles. "In one case the woman was collecting prawns from a creek within the park area, which is illegal. It is the natural habitat of estuarine crocodiles; it is their area. So if men intrude into the park area there will always be such a threat."

The saltwater crocodile is carnivorous and a scavenger. The species lives mainly on fish (predatory fish). It often feeds on meat discarded from nearby human habitations and the occasional cattle, deer, sambar or wild pig.

The saltwater crocodile is stated to be most dangerous species of crocodile from a human point of view. In Bhitarkanika, the situation is ripe for conflict — frequent human intrusion into the crocodile habitat illegally and a large crocodile population with a number of very large males. But it has been observed that adult crocodiles under normal circumstances never leave their territory to chase a person. Most of the incidents occur when the victims are engaged in either illegal fishing, poaching, collection of prawn seedlings, wood gathering, honey collecting, the cutting of Nalia grass and so on from the river or creek banks or while setting the traps or noose for trapping animals very close to river or creek banks.

There have been frequent attacks on livestock too, with crocodiles waiting in ambush near the river bank. Moreover during the nesting season (February to June) the female crocodiles become aggressive, so the park remains closed to visitors from May to June.

So what is the solution to the crocodile attacks?

Says Madhab Manna, sarpanch of Dangmal village on the periphery of the park: "The government is not bothered. The reptile kills us, maims many and the compensation is a mere Rs.2,000 whereas if a man is killed by an elephant the compensation is Rs.1 lakh! Instead of just asking us not to venture into river creeks for bathing or fishing the government should consider wire fencing so that crocodiles do not escape into our area."

Suresh Chandra Mondal, an educationist, is of the opinion that since crocodiles and men cannot co-exist the government should shift the people and rehabilitate them elsewhere. But people have been living in these villages since 1936 and the present population could be about 30,000 in nearly 50 villages.

Says DFO Nayak, "A number of new villages have sprung up on the periphery. The population has grown. It is really a desperate situation as the people are very poor. We are encouraging them to take up alternative means of livelihood."

Vocational training is being imparted. Alternative income generation is being promoted — papad making, incense sticks making and inland fishing.

There are some like advocates Pradip Das and Mrutyunjay Samal who feel that the solution lies in maintaining a strip of undisturbed mangrove forests at least 100 m wide along all rivers/creeks adjacent to cultivated land and human habitation inside the sanctuary. Chennai-based herpetologist Romulus Whitaker suggested about a year ago that the species be used for commercial purposes. He called upon animal rights activists to be realistic and said, "The money earned from exploiting the huge market for crocodile meat and skin could be used to conserve other species of wildlife." He recommended crocodile farming under Government supervision so that crocodile skin could be sold. "There is no harm in exploiting any animal, provided you know how to breed it," says the renowned conservationist.

However Whitaker's suggestion may have little relevance to the problem in Bhitarkanika as environmentalists argue that trade in crocodile skin is against the law of the land

"Crocodiles are listed in Schedule-I of Wildlife Protection Act hence they can neither be hunted nor traded," says Dr. Sudharkar Kar, Crocodile Research Officer in the Wildlife Division of the State Forest Department.

* * *

AFTER 28 years in captivity, the prime attraction of the Bhitarkanika National park, and the first white crocodile of the country, Gori, would be released into the wild this winter. Named Gori (the fair one) for her white skin, the crocodile was hatched in 1975. This was under the "rear and release" programme at the Dangamal Crocodile Research Farm inside the Bhitarkanika wildlife wildlife sanctuary in Kendrapara district of Orissa about 120 km away from Bhubaneswar.

Ever since birth the reptile has been living in isolation because of very aggressive behaviour. The Forest Department's attempts to get her to breed resulted in her killing three potential suitors, and losing an eye in the process. She now stays in a pen at Dangmal.

The crocodile has been under severe stress so officials feel that releasing her into the wild might help.

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