In 50th year of India’s saurian conservation, one of its architects worried for Bhitarkanika

Sudhakar Kar, all of 73 years, is however continuing with conserving salties in the national Park, as it is not ‘a fad but a mission’ for him

H R Bustard (In hat), with Sudhakar Kar (in cap) and others at Bhitarkanika. Photo provided by Ashis Senapati

It was back in 1975 that India launched its Crocodile Conservation Project in Odisha’s Bhitarkanika National Park, the former hunting grounds of kings from the Kanika princely state. Now, one of the men who helmed that endeavour to save the country’s crocodilians, has expressed worry at the spiralling human-crocodile conflict in the Park located in Kendrapara district.

“I am worried about the human-crocodile conflict in Bhitarkanika. We have warned people from riverside villagers several times not to enter into the rivers, creeks and other waterbodies of Bhitarkanika and its nearby areas as estuarine crocodiles inhabit them,” Sudhakar Kar, Odisha’s ‘Crocodile Man’ told Down To Earth (DTE).

The estuarine or saltwater crocodile (Crocodylus porosus) is the largest living reptile on earth. The ‘saltie’, the mugger or marsh crocodile (Crocodylus palustris) and the gharial (Gavialis gangeticus), are India’s three main species of crocodilians. This family consists of 24 species and includes ‘true crocodiles’, alligators, caiman and the gharial.

The saltie is found in only three locations in the country today: Bhitarkanika, the Sundarbans and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

50 years ago

Today, there are 1,811 saltwater crocodiles in Bhitarkanika, a vast tract of forest and saltwater swamp, as per the reptile census report of this year. But it was not always so.

In 1975, barely three years after the passage of the Wild Life (Protection) Act, 1972, crocodilians were still very much threatened and on the verge of extinction in India due to indiscriminate killing for commercial purposes and severe habitat loss.

A saltwater crocodile in Bhitarkanika. Photo provided by Ashis Senapati

That is when the United Nations and the Government of India launched a crocodile conservation project. “The main objective of the crocodile conservation project was to protect the animals’ natural habitat and revive the population quickly through captive breeding as the survival rate of the crocodile hatchlings in nature is low because of predation,” said Kar. 

Under the directions of noted Australian herpetologist and Food and Agriculture Organization expert HR Bustard, centres to breed and rear salties, muggers and gharials were started in 34 places in West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Odisha and other states in India.

Kar and Bustard also started saltwater crocodile breeding and rearing in 1975 in Bhitarkanika, one of the 34 sites.

“In 1975, as a research fellow, I started working with HR Bustard for crocodile conservation in Bhitarkanika. Mr Bustard is my mentor,” said 73-year-old Kar.

“The number of saltwater crocodiles in the Bhitarkanika area was estimated to be 95, including 34 adults, in 1975. But the saltwater crocodile conservation programme is the most successful one due to our efforts. We are proud to have saved the crocodiles although the conflict does worry me,” said Kar.

Forest officials have erected barricades around 120 river ghats in the Park and its nearby areas to prevent attacks on human beings, he noted.

The human-crocodile conflict in Bhitarkanika even played a role in the recently concluded Lok Sabha and Assembly elections in Odisha. Many locals in villages around the Park had vowed not to vote for incumbent politicians, claiming they had not done enough to make the area safe from crocodile attacks, which have led to 50 deaths since 2014.

But even as the conflict continues, Kar has also carried on with conservation work. After his retirement as senior scientist (Wildlife) of the Forest and Environment Department, Government of Odisha, Kar has been imparting technical expertise and methodology on the annual census of  saltwater crocodiles in Bhitarkanika.

“The conservation of crocodiles is not a passing fad for me but a mission,” he said.

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