Boating is the only way to sightsee through Odisha’s Bhitarkanika Wildlife Sanctuary we were told as we assembled at the Khola forest check post. But it was low tide and the boat, which was to take us inside the forest, could not come level with the high bamboo platform that served as the jetty.
So with some trepidation and lots of help from the boatmen and forest guards, we managed to jump down to the roof of the boat and then descend to the lower deck. Benches fixed to the boat were placed along the length of the wall. We could see the forest from the rows of windows cut into the boat.
Although the roof of the boat seemed more exciting for a better view of the forest but without rails it could be a tad dangerous. After all, we were entering an area known to have the highest density of salt water (estuarine) crocodiles in India.
The sanctuary was located along the delta of the Brahmani River which drained out to the Bay of Bengal. According to the Odisha Forest Department, the forest under the erstwhile Kanika royal estate was declared a protected area in 1961. In 1975, it became known as Bhitarkanika Wildlife Sanctuary with an area of 672 sq. km. In 1998, 145 sq.km core area was declared a National Park. In 2002, the sanctuary was declared a Ramsar Site owing to its unique ecosystem consisting of mangrove forests, tidal waterbodies of the deltaic region, estuaries of the Bay of Bengal, and their associated flora and fauna.
As the boat glided past the mangrove forest, we scanned the muddy banks. “There! There!” came a hushed whisper from one of the windows and then a sharp warning from one of the boatmen. In our eagerness to spot the first ‘saltie’, we had upset the delicate balance of the boat. “All of you will see the crocodiles from all the windows, he said, “There is no need to rush to one corner.” And soon his words proved right.
The boat meandered through a network of channels and creeks. Every now and then, we could see the crocodiles, some really huge, sunning along the muddy banks. Some disturbed by the noise of the boat’s engine splashed ungainly into the water. Sometimes, we could only make out a crocodile swimming by the snout that drew a trail along the water.
In between watching the crocodiles, we searched for the birds, especially kingfishers. Bhitarkanika is said to shelter eight species of kingfishers. Some of the common birds seen here are open-billed storks, cormorants, darters, etc. It is also home to leopard cat, fishing cat, jungle cat, hyena, wild boar, spotted deer, sambar, porcupine, dolphin, etc. In winter, migratory birds are also common. Gahirmatha, one of the key nesting grounds of the endangered Olive Ridley sea turtle (Lepidochelys Olivacea), is also part of the Bhitarkanika Sanctuary.
One of the popular tourist spots inside the sanctuary is the Dangmal island forest. A four km long nature trail runs through the Bhitarkanika Forest Block located here. There is also a watch tower inside the forest. On the trail, one has to be cautious as you may come across wild boar and monitor lizards, apart from spotted deer and birds. In one corner of the island is a tourist complex consisting of a few huts and a restaurant besides a nicely laid out Nature Interpretation Centre.
Getting there: Khola and Gupti are two of the most convenient forest check posts to enter Bhitarkanika Sanctuary. Bhubaneswar, the nearest airport and a major railhead, is about 160km by road from these check posts. Accommodation is limited. Odisha Forest Development Corporation (www.ecotourodisha.com) operates the Dangmal Nature Camp, Gupti Nature Camp and a beach resort at Habalikhati. There are also a few private resorts near Khola. Do not forget to take precautions against mosquito/insect bites.