Saltwater crocodiles, whosepopulation is booming in the wild after four decades of conservation near the Odisha coast, are now out to explore new territories, fuelling a conflict between the large semi-aquatic reptiles and humans.
Officially, the total human casualty in this human-crocodile interaction over the past 12 years is 26. As many as 22 persons have escaped with grievous injuries in crocodile attacks in Rajanagar Mangrove Forest Division in Kendrapara district during this period.
The number of human casualties and injuries, however, do not reflect the severity of the crisis. But, the nagging fear of the crocodile that has crept into mind of people appears to have impacted the way of life of riparian communities in Kendrapara.
Nrusingha Swain (49), a lecturer in a private college hailing from Nilakanthapur village situated on the bank of Brahmani river in Patamundai block of the district, had never imagined that one day he would have to avoid the very river, around which his life was once centered.
“I have grown up taking baths and swimming in Brahmani. Now, the river is too dangerous to tread into. This year we have lost a young man from our village to a crocodile. Three to four crocodiles are frequently found floating in the river water. Villagers have just stopped entering the river water,” said Mr. Sahu.
Though swimming is an expertise every riverside villager learns from childhood, he has not let his son train in the essential life skill due to fear of the crocodile.
Bikram Keshari Khanndai of Sidhabali said the distance between block headquarters and his village is four km if he crosses Brahmani by a country boat.
But villagers prefer to take the longer 15 km route to reach Patamundai.
Saltwater crocodile rearing started in Bhitarkanika National Park in 1975. Following diligent conservation programme, the crocodile numbers has increased to 1,768 this year, constituting India’s largest wild crocodile population.
During past few years, crocodiles are found frequently straying into ponds and canal systems which had been used by people for years together.
Crocodile in pond
Last month, an eight-feet long crocodile strayed into Vektakolla village under Rajanagar block after climbing a 15-ft-high river embankment. The reptile entered a village pond. After a lot of efforts, the crocodile was caught. Since then, villagers are scared of stepping out of their homes.
It is not isolated case. The fear was deeply entrenched in villages situated in a 30 km radius of the national park. The lurking danger has forced farmers to stop growing paddy and vegetables in riparian zones, which are very fertile. The agriculture has also been a casualty in the conflict.
The Forest department has created barricaded enclosures in rivers, canals and ponds to ensure safe bathing for the people. But, 107 bathing enclosures are quite inadequate for thousands of villagers.
J. D. Pati, Divisional Forest Officer of Rajnagar Mangrove Division, admits straying of crocodiles from Bhitarakanika to other areas.
“Earlier, it was observed that crocodiles used to undertake upward migration from 5 km to 10 km distance. Due to heavy rain this year under influence of low pressure areas, we have found crocodiles migrating from 17 km to 23 km towards mainland,” he pointed out.
“Over the years, the number of male adult crocodiles has increased. Like tigers those have territorial range, male crocodiles are trying to establish their own range. They are exploring new territories,” Mr. Pati elaborated.
“We have to find out why they are migrating. There are many fresh water ponds along the coast. During tidal surge, sea water enters these water-bodies. The condition becomes suitable for fishes to grow. The number of abandoned ponds and ponds being created under Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme has also gone up. It is one of the reasons that crocodiles are migrating from their habitats in search of fish,” he pointed out.
Prof. Sushil Kumar Dutta, a renowned zoologist, said, “area of the present habitat is falling short for swelling crocodile population. It is normal that these reptiles would go on searching for new areas. For scientific intervention, one has to study carrying capacity of water-bodies in the park.”
Stating that the man-crocodile encounter is here to stay, Prof. Dutta said, “the government in consultation with riparian communities must find out a solution to reduce the interaction.” According to environmentalist Biswajit Mohanty, the disturbance caused by tourists’ boats inside Bhitarkanika National Park was forcing the crocodiles to look for quieter places.
Enclosures for cattle
Apart from safe bathing ghats, villagers demand setting up of large enclosures inside river as temporary measures so that children could find space to learn swimming. Separate enclosures for cattle were also demanded as crocodiles were found preying on the domestic animals.
One of the steps suggested by experts to reduce crocodile population is its redistribution into wetlands of entire mangrove forests of Bhitarakanika and Mahanadi river system.