International report

Crocodiles make a comeback in India's Bhitarkanika mangrove reserve

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One of the sanctuary's crocodiles.
One of the sanctuary's crocodiles. © Murali Krishnan

Bhitarkanika in India's eastern Odisha state is one of the sub-continent's largest mangrove ecosystems, and is home to salt water crocodiles and a huge range of other creatures. It is also the world's largest mass nesting site for Olive-Ridley turtles. 

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The Bhitarkanika sanctuary is located in the north-eastern region of Kendrapara district of Odisha and the sanctuary covers an area of 672 square kilometers of mangrove forests and wetland.

Three rivers flow out to sea at Bhitarkanika, forming a tidal maze of muddy creeks and mangroves.The park is home to more than 215 species of birds.

The population of the saltwater or estuarine crocodile has increased in the water bodies of Odisha’s Bhitarkanika National Park and its nearby areas in Kendrapara district, with forest officials counting 1,757 crocodiles in last year’s annual reptile census.

Some of the hundreds of native and migrant bird species.
Some of the hundreds of native and migrant bird species. © Murali Krishnan

“We formed 22 teams to count the crocodiles in all the creeks and rivers within the park and its nearby areas,” Bikasah Ranjan Dash, the divisional forest officer of Bhitarkanika National Park told RFI.

“We also sighted around 12 albino crocodiles and four giant crocodiles more than 20 feet long in the water bodies of the reserve during the census and some of these crocodiles can live for more than 70 years.”

Vast nesting site for Olive-Ridley turtles 

Crocodiles aren’t this ecosystem’s only draw. The eastern coast of the state is also the largest mass nesting site for the Olive-Ridley turtles, followed by the coasts of Mexico and Costa Rica.

Every year, between the months of November and April, the offshore waters of the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean witness a flurry of action as the turtles make their way to beaches along India’s southeastern coast to nest.

Heading back to give birth.
Heading back to give birth. © Murali Krishnan

Using Earth’s magnetic field for orientation, this species of ocean wanderers journey several thousand kilometres to the beaches of Odisha, one of the largest mass-nesting sites in the world.

“It is amazing how this happens with untiring regularity every year and it is the world’s largest rookery of sea turtles,” Arun Rattan, who runs an eco retreat, told RFI.

After between 45-65 days, the eggs begin to hatch, and the beaches are swamped with crawling turtle babies, making their first trek towards the vast ocean.

Benefits of a year without humans

Last year, thanks to the restricted movement of people because of  the ongoing Covid-19 lockdown, over 800,000 Olive Ridley turtles safely returned to the coasts of Odisha, at the Gahirmatha beach and the rookeries in Rushikulya, for mass nesting in late March.

According to officials, with no human interference, the hatchlings began emerging from the sand and started their journey to the sea at the start of May.

Scramble for survival.
Scramble for survival. © Murali Krishnan

Olive Ridley turtles mate in the ocean and females can store sperm throughout the breeding season, enabling them to produce one to three clutches of eggs at intervals.

Like all sea turtles, the Olive Ridley females nest on the beach where they were born and they lay 50 to 200 eggs in each nest and return to the ocean shortly after.

Olive Ridley turtles remain vulnerable

Habitat and nesting site degradation from coastal developments and climate change threaten the survival of future Olive Ridley populations.

The turtles also face problems such as illegal egg poaching, turtle harvesting and nest destruction by humans which is rampant. Only between 1 and 8 percent of eggs laid actually hatch.

Security is high on the beaches to protect the Olive Ridley eggs and the state government stops fishing trawlers operating illegally along the coast.

According to the World Wildlife Fund, although Olive Ridleys are the most abundant of all sea turtles, they remain vulnerable because they nest in so few places.

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