Mangrove forests often go unappreciated by the casual observer, but the fact remains that they are extremely important to maintain the balance in the world’s tropical ocean ecosystems. Mangroves are salt tolerant, complicated and dynamic ecosystems that are found in tropical and subtropical inter-tidal regions. Bhitarkanika is one such location of rich, lush green, vibrant ecosystem in the estuarine region of Brahmani- Baitarani in the North-Eastern corner of Kendrapara district of Odisha. Situated at a distance of 130 kms from Bhubaneswar, Bhitrakanika was declared as a sanctuary in 1975 and declared as a National Park in 1998.
Nestled in the delta of rivers Baitarani, Brahmani and Dhamra, it is home to a wide variety flora and fauna. The area is intersected by a network of creeks with Bay of Bengal on the East. The alley between the meandering creeks and rivers, houses the second largest viable mangrove ecosystem of India. The vast area of mangrove forest and wetland, provides home to well over 215 species of birds including winter migrants from central-Asia and Europe. Giant salt water crocodiles and a variety of other wildlife inhabit this ecosystem which is one of Asia’s most spectacular wildlife sanctuaries. Bhitarkanika Wildlife Sanctuary and National Park is a major tourist attraction. It is recognized as the second largest mangrove ecosystem in India covering an area of 672 km2. However, only 527 km2 is used for tourism. It is also recognized as a “Crocodile Sanctuary” and is home to the biggest population of salt water crocodiles in the country.
The mangroves harbours India’s largest populations of saltwater crocodiles. The Gahirmatha Beach serves as a partition between the Bay of Bengal and the mangrove forest. It is the world’s largest nesting beach for the endangered Olive Ridley Sea Turtles and is therefore of foremost significance for the sustainability of the Olive Ridley population. For this very reason, Gahirmatha coast attracts tourists, environmentalists, marine biologists from all over the world. It was declared a wild life sanctuary in Odisha in 1979 and a world heritage site, Gahirmatha is significant for turtle conservation.
The wetland also hosts a large and diverse population of resident and migratory birds. Rhesus monkey, various species of cats such as the leopard cat, fishing cat, jungle cat, small Indian civet cat, toddy cat, common mongoose,mole rat, long tailed tree mouse, jackal, striped hyena, Indian fox, Indian porcupine, spotted deer, sambar, common otter, smooth Indian otter are also found here.
The spellbinding view of the sanctuary, situated on the merging point of the Dhamra River and Bay of Bengal enthralls nature loving tourists. since the sanctuary has been declared a world heritage site, it has slowly gained popularity as an important place in Odisha Tourism and is therefore also an integral part of Odisha’s economy. The sanctuary may be famous for crocodiles and Olive Ridley Turtles, but it also plays hosts to a number of other animals like barking deer, wild boars, bears, hyenas, jungle fowls, four horned antelopes, leopards, sloth bears and blue bulls.
During the nesting season, one can see thousands of turtles crawling out of the sea, dragging themselves towards the beach. They usually select a suitable site, dig a hole in the sand with their flippers, lay more than a hundred eggs each, cover the holes with their own body, clear out all traces of their visit and crawl back to the sea. The state government, aided by International and regional NGOs has created this safe habitat for giant turtles. there are strict rules and regulations banning fishing and also rules against setting up of industries in the nearby areas. At least, today, these endangered creatures can move around and reproduce freely owing to the timely intervention of the government.
The flora found in this region is as heterogeneous as the fauna. One will find flora like Bels, Salaia, Zizphus, Sal, Bamboo Babul, Teak, Bija, and many other varieties in the sanctuary. The sanctuary never fails to surprise the environmentalists and the experts claim that this is indeed one of the nature’s most beautiful miracles.
The best time to visit the Bhitarkanika is from October to March, which is the winter season. The temperature during this time is moderate and is a pleasant time to witness the ultimate beauty of the National Park. The winter season, apart from having a good weather for travelling and sight-seeing, also coincides with the arrival of migratory birds from Europe and Central Asia. It is also the season when the Olive Ridley turtles come out to lay their eggs on the beach. In the winter, the Bhitarkanika is the peak of its beauty. Tourists can also go trekking in the Bhitarkanika forest, and can also visit a fishermen village called Satabhaya. There are a lot of accommodations available, ranging from camps to dormitories to luxurious suites. The prices are nominal and the facilities are very good.
The entry fees for Indians is ₹20 per head, and for foreigners is ₹1000 per head. To take in cameras, the visitors have to pay ₹25 per camera for still cameras, and ₹500 per camera for video cameras. It is advised to dress in colours that blend in with the forest. While going in for a boat ride, the visitors must make sure that it has a valid license. Littering and plucking flowers, fruits, leaves etc. is strictly prohibited. Visitors are not to carry food items, especially meat or meat products. Visitors should maintain complete silence while moving in the sanctuary.
Pristine isolated beaches, exotic birds, awe-inspiring scenery, tens of thousands of giant turtles, formidable crocodiles, islands formed from river deltas, that is what Bhitrakanika is. Few destination in the world have so much to offer at one point. For the admirers of nature, Bhitrakanika remains as a treasure trove. Widely acclaimed for its biodiversity, Bhitarkanika stands as one of the few swamps having a compact mangrove ecosystem in India. Away from the blinding lights and deafening sound of city life, Bhitarakanika is a magical world altogether. A experience of exploring the lap of nature, a trip to Bhitarkanika is not only educative but also revitalising.