No let up in human animal conflict in Bhitarakanika National Park

No let up in human animal conflict in Bhitarakanika National Park The Oriya name for the saltwater crocodile (Crocodylus porosus) is baula kumbhira, which literally means crazy crocodile. The moniker certainly rings true for people living in about 50 villages around Bhitarakanika National Park in Orissa's Kendrapara district. Home to the largest concentration of saltwater crocodiles in the country, the reserve is rife with human-crocodile conflict.

If people living around Bhitarakanika are to be believed, at least 50 lives have been lost in crocodile attacks in the past 10 years. Cattle too has fallen prey to the reptile whose predatory instincts become particularly sharp during the breeding and mating season: February to June.

Park officials, however, have a different story. They say the death toll quoted by the local people is highly exaggerated.For example, Sudhakar Kar, who has been associated with the saltwater crocodile rearing and conservation programme in Bhitarakanika since its inception in 1975, contests local claims. "Crocodiles, unlike tigers don't chase people. It is only when people enter their habitat that attacks occur.' Why must people disturb the crocodile habitat?' he asks.

Kar claims most deaths are accidental. "Deaths are not reported every year and it is never more than one or two in a year. People here have a tendency to exaggerate,' he adds. According to official figures, 14 people were killed by crocodiles in Bhitarakanika between 1996-97 to 2002-2003. The reptiles also claimed 31 cattleheads during the period. However, residents of Dangmal panchayat, who have borne the brunt of the attacks, say these figures are not only misleading but they also don't take recent casualties into account. Hemant Panigrahy, a field assistant working at the Dangmal crocodile research centre at the Bhitarakanika National Park, admits stray attacks do happen.
Killed and maimed Last year, a person was killed at Ajgarpatia village while another sustained injuries in Dangmal village. Twenty-three-year-old Nakul Dalei of Dangmal is still nursing the wounds he suffered in a crocodile attack about six months ago. Pointing to his bandaged legs, he told this reporter, "I had been to a nullah near our village along with friends to fish when the animal attacked me. Though the sight of the beast made me panic, I managed to free myself from its grip with the help of friends.'
Core issues The 672-sq km Bhitarakanika wildlife sanctuary, which came into existence in April 1975, has around 407 villages within its limits. But these villages fall outside the periphery of the 145-sq km national park, which forms the sanctuary's core area. "The actual habitat of the saltwater crocodiles is the national park which was notified in 1998. This forms the core of the sanctuary and is expected to be completely free of human interference,' says Kar.

Activities like fishing and collection of firewood are banned within the sanctuary but the authorities have been implementing the ban only in the park area. "We are not rigid about rules, because people occasionally stray into forests and creeks. However, regular violations cannot be tolerated,' says an official.

The local people, however, contest such claims. "Ever since the sanctuary came into being we are neither allowed to fish in the creeks nor collect firewood from the forests. We cannot even collect mangrove leaves which we need badly for thatching our houses,' says Bishnu Charan Raj of Nuagaon village.
An ineffectual society In 1986, people living around the park came together to form the Bhitarakanika Bikas Sangram Samiti to protect their livelihood rights.Niranjan Nayak, one of the convenors of the samiti, says its members staged dharnas and demonstrations to draw the attention of authorities to their problems, but they were repeatedly stonewalled. "The attitude of the authorities has frustrated us no end. Today, the samiti has virtually stopped its activities. There is no point trying to appeal to the conscience of such insensitive people,' says Nayak.

People allege that the wildlife authorities are trying to thwart the construction of a pitch road from Rajnagar to Bhitarakanika Park, a distance of about 35 km, in the name of crocodile conservation. "They argue that the construction of the road would increase vehicular traffic, and this in turn would disturb the crocodiles. They also talk about pollution. So, do we stop all developmental work in this area for the sake of the crocodile. Don't we human beings have any right to live?' asks Braja Sunder Behera of Khamarsahi village.

Some like him cite the example of Nandankanan Zoological Park and the Simlipal Wildlife Sanctuary where developmental activities have never obstructed wildlife conservation. "If they think motor vehicles coming to the Bhitarakanika will cause noise and pollution, why don't they stop the movement of motorboats and launches in the Bhitarakanika river. Don't these disturb the estuarine crocodile?' asks Behera. The Bhitarakanika river flows through the sanctuary and scores of tourists enjoy launch rides in the river daily. This is, in fact, a source of income for the government.

Compensation or help?
The people living in villages in the reserve also refute official claims about crocodiles attacking only those who enter the reptile's habitat. For example, Shashank Shekhar Mandal of Sharda Prasad village says a crocodile killed his seven-year-old daughter while she was relieving herself in her kitchen garden. "The animal used to lurk there and we had told the wildlife officials about it. But they did nothing. Had they acted my daughter would have been saved,' says Mandal who was paid Rs 2,000 by the department after the incident. But he is not sure whether the amount was compensation or a simple helpful gesture from some kind officials.

No recompense
The official compensation in case of death by crocodile attacks is currently Rs 1 lakh, but it was only Rs 10,000 two years ago. And, if villagers are to be believed, the next of kin of the victims rarely received this paltry sum. But officials like Kar maintain that the villagers, a majority of them Bengali settlers, cook up stories to gain sympathies of visiting journalists. "The truth is that we have been trying to help the local people in all possible ways. We have employed them as guards, boatmen and even contract workers. We also engage them in activities like eco-plantation, pisciculture and making incense sticks. But nothing seems to satisfy them,' he says.

The villagers, however, contend that such activities are rare, and deny the department provides them any employment. The next of kin of Madhusudan Behera, a grade iv employee of the park who was killed by a crocodile in 2004, have not been compensated. "I have been entreating them to make my son's job permanent but nobody listens to me,' says his widow Sushila, who lives on the edge of the park.

People also claimed that they were not consulted before the sanctuary was created following concern over the sharp decline in the numbers of crocodiles in the area in the mid-1970s. Their population had gone down to 96 in 1975 when the government launched a conservation programme with the help of the Food and Agriculture Organization and United Nations Development Programme. While illegal killing and trapping of the reptile was stopped after the sanctuary was created, eggs were collected from the wild and hatched under controlled conditions at the Dangmal crocodile research centre in the park to build up the reptile's depleted population. The reared crocodiles (1 metre to 1.2 metres) were released into the creeks. Kar says more than 2,200 captive reared crocodiles have been released in the sanctuary's creeks since 1977 and notwithstanding the low survival rate (less than 5 per cent), their population has grown to 14,97 (January 2007).

The scientist rejects the idea of culling, which could provide local people a livelihood option by selling crocodile leather. "Culling should be considered only when there is a surplus population. That's not the case here. The habitat is small and under extreme biotic pressure. Though we have scaled down the rearing and release programme since 1995 following an increase in population, we are keen to maintain the existing level by protecting the habitat,' he says.

Park authorities, however, are considering the possibility of relocation. The plan is to release some crocodiles in the Mahanadi delta where they flourished when it had a thick mangrove cover. "With the mangroves disappearing from the delta, saltwater crocodiles are not found there. We are thinking of trying to revive them in the area,' Kar says.

But relocating a few crocodiles is not going to lessen the threat they pose to humans living around the park.