Covering 672 square kilometres overlying the Brahmani-Baitarani delta, the mangrove forests and wetlands of the BHITARKANIKA WILDLIFE SANCTUARY constitute one of the richest ecosystems of its type in India. As well as over two hundred species of birds, it’s a refuge for saltwater crocodiles, monitor lizards, rhesus monkeys and a host of other reptiles and mammals, and incorporates the Olive Ridley turtle nesting beaches at Gahirmatha, Rushikulya and Devi. Bhitarkanika is open throughout the year, but the best time to visit is November to March, when most of the migratory birds that flock to the sanctuary are in situ, although the nesting season for the herons usually ends around the middle of November. If you’re hoping to witness the arrival of Olive Ridley turtles, check first at the OTDC tourist office in Bhubaneswar to find out exactly when – or indeed if – they are expected. Other highlights include the crocodile conservation programme at Dangmar Island and the heronry at Bagagahana.
Every year around February or March, a strip of beach at the end of Orissa’s central river delta witnesses one of the world’s most extraordinary natural spectacles. Having swum right across the Pacific and Indian oceans, an average of around 200,000 female Olive Ridley marine turtles crawl onto the sand to nest. Almost as soon as the egg laying is complete, they’re off again into the surf to begin the journey back to their mating grounds on the other side of the world.
No one knows quite why they travel such distances, but for local villagers the arrival of the giant turtles has traditionally been something of a boon. Turtle soup for breakfast, lunch and dinner…and extra cash from market sales. Over the years the annual slaughter began to turn into a green gold rush, and turtle numbers plummeted drastically until the Bhitarkanika Sanctuary on Gahirmatha beach, 130km northeast of Bhubaneswar, was set up in 1975 at the personal behest of Indira Gandhi. Weeks before the big three- or four-day invasion, coastguards monitor the shoreline and armed rangers aim to keep poachers at bay. For wildlife enthusiasts it’s a field day.
In recent years, however, environmental threats have impacted on the turtles’ habitat. Several hundred local families have begun to cultivate land within the sanctuary, water quality has been jeopardized by the growth of illegal prawn farms, and trawlers have been caught illegally fishing in the area without “turtle excluder devices”. The turtles are further menaced by industrial pollution and the construction of a large seaport at Dhamra, 15km from Gahirmatha. Several conservation organizations, including Greenpeace and the WWF, are monitoring the area. To give a scale of the problem, in January 2010, the bodies of around one thousand dead turtles (according to official estimates) were found on the beach; although this is horrifyingly high, it was less than half of the figure for the previous year.