Until 1952, Bhitarkanika was part of the land that belonged to the zamindar of Kanika. A set of rules that dictated the use of the forest was recorded as Kanika Jungle Mahal Niyambali in 1935. The entire Kanika range was divided into 28 blocks, out of which 6 were maintained as reserve forest blocks – Kalibhanjadia, Bhitarkanika, Thakurdia, Banipaha, Sana and Bada Haguri and Gahirmatha. Even in those days, tree felling and hunting were not permitted within this Protected Area.
Later, with the Orissa Zamindari Abolition Act, 1951, the forest was brought under the control of the revenue administration. The area became a reserved forest and was slowly taken over by people who wanted to settle there. Portions of the forest were cleared in order to house the Bangladesh refugees in the 1960s. To provide protection to the numerous endangered species in the area, the forest was declared a sanctuary in April 1975.
Agni Utsav is celebrated in January-February. Girls from every household clean the village and on the seventh day of the month Magha, gather straw in huge bundles. The straw heaps are burnt and the direction of the straw while burning is believed to predict the next year's crop. An eastward tilt reflects high tides and entry of saline waters into the fields. A westward tilt predicts floods while a tilt towards the Northeast means good crops.
Bhitarkanika extends over 800 sq. km., out of which 380 sq. km. is covered by forests and the rest by estuarine waters. The core area consists of 141.44 sq. km. extending from Dangamala to the mouth of the Thakurdia river near the Satyavata and Gahirmatha coasts. About 115 sq. km. of the core area is covered by mangrove forests. The rest comprises creeks and estuaries – the unique amalgamation of sea and fresh water.
The mangroves are a highlight of the area and 62 mangrove species out of 70 found all over the world, exist is Bhitarkanika. In fact, Bhitarkanika is the second largest mangrove forest in the country after the Sundarbans. Two species of mangrove, Heritiera kanikensis and Merope angualata are found exclusively in Bhitarkanika. The vegetation is adapted especially for the saline mud of the coastal delta. Stilt roots, leathery leaves and vivipary are typical of this region, which is permanently wet with salt water and high tides.
Littoral swamp forests are mainly found in Bhitarkanika. The mangroves can survive inundation by tidal waves, high humidity and temperature, high salinity, as well as cyclones. The mangroves have special roots called pneumatophores that help them to survive in these conditions. Large areas of these forests are being cleared away to make way for growing crops.
Some of the species found here include Kalban Avicennia officinalis, Baniya Hibiscus tillaoeus, Dhalbani Avicennia alba, Hental Phoenix paludosa and Rai Rhizophora micronta.
The million olive Ridley turtles that nest here lay almost 84 million eggs here. This is observed in only three other places around the world- two along the Costa Rica coast and one in Mexico. Besides the olive Ridley, hawksbill and leatherback turtles, Bibron's softshelled turtle, saltwater crocodiles, also the water monitor, the king cobra and the Indian rock python are the endangered species of Bhitarkanika.
The thick mangrove forests and the beach provide the ideal habitat for terrestrial and aquatic wildlife. Sambar, chital, and wild boar besides leopards, jackals, hyenas, porcupines, otters and fishing cats are some of the prominent animals found here.
The topography is ideal for amphibians and reptiles. Five species of amphibians, nine species of lizards, seven species of turtles and eighteen species of snakes including banded kraits are found here.The area harbours a large breeding and conservation program for crocodiles and one may often come across a reptile sunning itself on mudbanks. Mudskippers and the limulus crab are other aquatic fauna.
More than 170 species of resident and migratory birds occur in the area and a large waterbird rookery is situated here. The Bar-headed Goose, Grey Pelicans and Bramhiny Duck are some of the birds in the area. Large flocks of Lesser Whistling Teal may be seen feeding gregariously. Waders and ducks may be seen in plenty. Asian Openbills, six species of kingfisher, five species of egrets, the Black-headed Ibis are found as also the White-bellied Sea Eagle. kites, Common Snipes, curlews, sand pipers and Darters also inhabit the shores. Shovellers and cormorants may be seen scouting the shallows.
You may sight pugmarks of a leopard or droppings of chital at Bhitarkanika. If you're lucky, you might actually see the chital browsing fresh outcrops of foliage. Nights at the beach will see the turtles sprawled over the entire expanse of sand.
Sailing at night in June or July would reveal creeks laden with nesting storks, ibis and herons. When the chicks are about to hatch, the predatory Brahminy kites hover over them in large numbers. You might also see the kite attack and the defence of the stork.
Bagagahan Island: Located within the sanctuary, Bagaghan is a large heronry spread over 22 acres which forms the nesting site for colonies of herons and other water birds.
Palmyra Point: The southern tip of the Parsula River is known to attract sea turtles.
Lalitagiri-Ratnagiri-Udaygiri: About 40 km. from Gahirmatha, these three hills together represent the Buddhist heritage of Orissa. The hills still have ruins of brick monasteries, stone sculptures and Buddhist images. It was once famous for the Buddhist University called 'Pushpagiri Mahavihara'. The museums at Ratnagiri and Lalitagiri are worth a visit.
Many of the places within the reserve, including rest houses can only be accessed by boat.
Be sure to carry a pair of binoculars since you might chance to see some interesting birds.
Permits to enter the sanctuary must be obtained in advance from the Divisional Forest Officer in Rajnagar (Tel.:06729-8460) or from the Conservator of Forests in Bhubaneshwar (Tel.:0674-515840).
Divisional Forest Officer, Wildlife Conservation Division, P.O. Chandbali, District Balssore, Orissa.
Conservator of Forests, Mayur Bhawan, Sahid Nagar, Bhubaneshwar – 751004. Tel.: 0674-515840.
Orissa Krushak Mahasangh,14, Ashok Nagar, Bhubaneshwar – 751 009. Tel.:0674-400 305.
Winters are cold with temperatures ranging from 15-270C. Temperatures normally range between 17-320C in summer though it can rise up to 450C in April. Average rainfall of 1450 mm. is observed. But the area is prone to cyclones and tidal waves that usually occur between April and May and at the beginning of winter, between October and December.
The turtles spend about six months on land. They arrive between October and January and leave for the sea in May, heading to the south towards Sri Lanka. They mate between October/November and January. The first major nesting or arribada (Spanish for 'arrival') occurs around January-February. It is believed that the turtles arrive all the way from South America to lay their eggs on a 35-km. strip of sand. They make a hole about half-a-metre deep in the sand and drop 140-180 eggs in them. After covering them up with sand, they return to the sea. A second mass nesting occurs in March/April.
Herons and other waterbirds at Bagagahan usually arrive in early June and nesting is over by November.
Accommodation is available at forest rest houses in and around the park at nominal costs. For bookings contact the Divisional Forest Officer, Rajnagar (Tel.: 06729-8460).
Forest Rest House, Chandbali. Accessible from the highway at Bhadrakh.
Forest Rest House, Dangmal. At this rest house located deep within the reserve, suites and dormitory facilities are available.
Forest Rest House, Gupti. Dorm arrangements can be availed of at the rest house located in the heart of the reserve.
Forest Rest House, Ekakula. The rest house is located at the beach and offers suites and a dorm.
Forest Rest House, Habalikhati. A Dormitory is available for stay at the rest house located on the beach of the Marine National Park.
By Air: The Bhubaneshwar airport is 190 km. away.
By Rail: Bhadrakh (77 km.) is the nearest railhead.
By Road: Chandabali, 35 km. away is the nearest town. It is 160 km. from Cuttack. Dangamal is the starting point of the Park. The most convenient route from Bhubaneshwar is via Rajnagar.
By Boat: From Chandabali and Rajnagar, the journey by motor launch would take about three hours. From Rajnagar, one can approach Dangamal traversing via Nalitapatia by launch. Alternatively, from Calcutta the nearest destination is Dhamara from where a launch is available right up to Chandabali.
Within the reserve: Most places within the estuarine reserve can only be reached by boat. A shrine to Mangal Devi marks the beginning of the sanctuary.