Odisha is a paradise for wildlife! The Olive Ridley sea turtles which arrive every year to breed on the coast have put the state on the international wildlife map. Many of my wildlife friends envy me since this is the only state in India and the second place in the world where this unique event occurs. Turtle lovers across the world eagerly await this wonderful natural event when thousands of turtles congregate in coastal waters 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. In the 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.
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. Since the last 20 years, at least 1,80,000 dead turtles have been counted on the beaches of the state. Even now at least 5,000 to 6,000 turtles perish every season which is a shame! I hope the government works harder to arrest these annual turtle deaths.
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 1000 eggs laid hatches and grows up into an adult turtle and therefore protection of the breeding population is critical.
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 we have. To protect this invaluable wildlife wealth, the state government has declared 22 Wildlife Sanctuaries and National Parks. The latest wildlife Sanctuary to be notified was Kapilash WLS in 2012 covering a small area of 125 sq kms in Dhenkanal district. The keystone species in this Sanctuary is the Indian Giant Squirrel which is a lovely creature to behold at Kapilash Temple area. These cute squirrels have a beautiful maroon coat and are truly a delightful sight as they frolic on tree tops, jumping from branch to branch!
The world famous Bhitarkanika mangroves forests are home to some of the world’s largest crocodiles. The salt water crocodiles are found here in large numbers and the latest estimate puts them at 1,600 odd. However, more than half are juveniles who may not survive when they grow up. 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 Bhitarkanika 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 Bhitarkanika which was shot by the erstwhile king of Kanika.
Chilika is Asia’s largest brackish water lake spread across 900 sq kms approximately. 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 260 species.
However, the lake is also world famous for another rare creature, the Irrawady dolphins. This endangered creature with a total estimated population of about 150 is easily sighted in this lake. Irrawady Dolphins are small dolphins 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 state has nearly 1,960 elephants and at least 25 tigers. Unfortunately, tigers are sharply declining in numbers in the state. It is a matter of time before we shall see them disappear as populations fall below unviable numbers!
Satkosia Tiger Reserve used to have about twelve tigers when it was notified in 2007 but now the population has crashed to one. 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 Mahanadi. Both species of crocodiles i.e., the gharial and the mugger are sighted here though the gharials are very small in number. You can also sight river turtles basking on the banks of the river.
Short sighted harmful tourism ventures have been unfortunately promoted by the forest department. They have set up a tourist resort on the Mahanadi river bed near Badmul which is illegal since they disturb endangered wildlife such as crocodiles and turtles which use the sand banks for basking and nesting. Besides, wastes would invariably pollute the crystal clear waters of Mahanadi river. I wonder how guardians of wildlife can think of such imbecilic projects!
Simlipal Tiger Reserve is spread over nearly 2,800 sq kms in the district of Mayurbhanj. It has wonderful rest houses dating from the Mayurbhanj 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 water falls 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. Elephants are in abundance in this park. The count is nearly 500 though most tuskers are gone thanks to rampant poaching in the Tiger Reserve. In 2010, wildlife lovers were shocked to learn that at least 15 elephants had been killed inside the Park. Even now it is difficult to see mature tuskers in the Park which indicates the havoc wreaked by poachers because of lack of protection of these mammals.
Simlipal is 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, and 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 visitors to Simlipal not to allow 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 Government of India reveals a population of around 20 currently down from 101 in 2006! Their prey base is under attack due to regular poaching and hence you will rarely see sambar or deer in the Park unless you watch a salt lick near the forest beats where the animals feel safe.
Another wonderful place to visit in Odisha is Barbara forests near Balugaon. This place is about 150 kms from Bhubaneswar and was protected by the CRPF who have now left. It has a wonderful population of bison and sambhar which you can see when you drive to Mahisagoth or Rajin hill road. Birds like Indian pied hornbill, yellow billed blue magpie, fantail flycatchers are also found here. Three frogs new to science have been discovered here thanks to the untiring efforts of noted herpetologist Prof. S.K. Dutta. I must mention with a blush that I was too a part of the survey team in 2001 when we surveyed the forest streams for new frog species!
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. One 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 close to Cuttack city the turtle population has recovered leading to an unwanted consequence! Turtles have started damaging the fishing nets and fishermen are now clamouring for compensation!
The rolling grasslands and scrub forests of Bhetnoi–Balipadar in Ganjam district are famous for its herds of black buck whose population has jumped since the last one decade. Locals revere the animals and protect them even when they raid their crop fields. One can see black buck foraging quite close to the Aska-Buguda main road. The area has wonderful rocky outcrops which look quite attractive in the dry landscape. The place is about 170 kms from Bhubaneswar. This is a must visit spot for wildlife lovers and is a glaring example of how community support helps in growth of wildlife. The black bucks have now spread to other nearby areas and are seen even near Rambha and Khallikote. This is one huge success story of conservation for Odisha!
Odisha’s incredible wildlife wealth needs to be preserved for the future so that our children become 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. We should be conscientious about our treasure trove which needs to be constantly protected against foolish development projects that threaten their habitat and food.
(This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are the author’s own and have nothing to do with OTV’s charter or views. OTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same. The author is a conservationist and a former member of the National Board for Wildlife. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)