The crocs of Bhitarkanika: A problem of plenty?
Bhitarkanika: It is a tiny piece of heaven on the Odisha coast. The Bhitarkanika Wildlife Sanctuary is where the world's largest living reptile, the estuarine crocodile, is thriving amidst sylvan surroundings after having been brought back from the brink. But now there is trouble with the reptile population booming, posing a threat to the natural balance.
From a strength of 96 crocodiles in 1976, the population now stands at 1,646. A boat ride in some areas can yield crocodile sightings as frequent as one croc a minute, according to a conservationist.
An increasing number of cases of saltwater crocodiles straying into human habitations have been recently reported from Bhitarkanika, in Kendrapada district about 130 km from the Odisha capital Bhubaneswar.
"In Bhitarkanika, some areas are well-populated with crocodiles since on a boat ride you spot a crocodile every minute. In other parts of the sanctuary, you don't see crocodiles at all," Bivash Pandav, scientist at the Dehradun-based Wildlife Institute of India (WII), said.
The human-crocodile encounters have mostly ended with tragic results for either side.
In the latest incidents, a crocodile that wandered into a village killed a 13 year-old-boy while in another hamlet frightened villagers hacked a 7.8 metre crocodile to death.
It all boils down to space, feels Pandav. "Around 1,646 crocodiles now inhabit nearly 175 sq km of forested habitat in Bhitarkanika. But if you critically analyze their distribution, you will find them densely packed in the Bhitarkanika river system. Abundance of crocodiles is much less in rivers like Maipura and Baunsagada," he says.
Indeed, it is this confinement of the crocs in the 26 to 30 sq km of water bodies in the sanctuary that is leading to conflict.
"The crocodiles regularly stray out of the sanctuary, not because of food but due to overpopulation. There is no problem of food here. This is a very rich estuarine river ecosystem. They are well stocked with fish. Every village near the sanctuary has aquaculture farms and small ponds. The crocodiles usually enter these areas. Conversely, people enter the forest and wade in croc-infested waters and get into conflict with crocodiles," explains Pandav.
What then is the solution?
"The problems in predator-human relations always arise from too little space. Especially so with crocs because under good conditions, they reproduce rather quickly. And in Bhitarkanika the conditions are good. There is no easy solution," Montana-based American nature writer David Quammen, who has worked in Bhitarkanika, said.
In the past, experts have recommended translocation of crocs to other areas - something on the lines of proposals to translocate Asiatic lions from their overpopulated Gir home.
But Quammen does not agree. "It's not at all so crucial, I would say, to move crocs from Bhitarkanika to somewhere else, because the species Crocodylus Porosus already exists in many other populations in other areas, throughout Indonesia, New Guinea, and Australia," he says.
Pandav has another suggestion. "The management needs to consolidate rivers like Maipura and Baunsagada by preventing illegal fishing so that crocodiles can take shelter in these areas."
What about translocating people who live near the sanctuary? "Translocating people is always difficult politically and in human terms. I suspect that would not be a workable approach. If they are inside the sanctuary itself, yes, require them to move. Prevent further incursion. But when crocs venture outside the sanctuary, it might be best to translocate the crocs," feels Quammen.
The forest department is doing its bit too. It warns locals, erects barriers along bathing ghats and has even introduced a scheme of rewarding informants who spot crocs near a human habitation first. "These are good measures and I would think such efforts should be re-doubled. These effective adjustments can mitigate the problem," says Quammen.
Experts also feel that controlling the croc population could be taken up if it continues to grow. "The crocodile population in Bhitarkanika needs a through scientific evaluation. We need to critically assess their breeding success. If the study shows that the crocodile population is going to grow, then we need to control it in the wild by destroying their nests. However, this kind of intervention can only be made through proper scientific evaluation, which is lacking at the moment," says Pandav.
In India, besides Bhitarkanika, the saltwater crocodile (Crocodylus Porosus) can also be found in the Sundarbans and the Andamans.