Crocodiles of Bhitarkanika

Salt water crocodile in Bhitarkanika, Odisha

It had rained in the night and the air was distinctly cooler. When we set out on the boat in the morning we had our first sighting of a fully grown salt water crocodile: about 5 meters long. This is Bhitarkanika National Park’s flagship species. It had pulled itself out of the muddy water into the bank. Its colour merged perfectly with that of the mud around it; only the long shadow of the morning gave it away. As our boat drew near, I could see that its eyes were open and tracking us. When we drew too close for its comfort, it darted across the mud, into the water. A quick swirl of mud, and it had disappeared into the murky depths. The calm creek we were on suddenly seemed treacherous. We had no idea how many dangers lurked beneath us.

Through the day we saw adults basking in the sun, always alone. Each disappeared rapidly into the water if we approached too close. These two facts seemed to suggest that these crocodiles are highly territorial. Very likely, stretches of the river “belong” to one individual. This would also make them extremely wary of creatures larger than them: possibly dangerous rivals.

Yearling crocodile in Bhitarkanika, Odisha

The previous day had been sweltering warm, and we hadn’t seen any adults. However, the banks of the creek were full of immature crocodiles: from the 30 cm long yearlings to meter-long three-year olds. The youngest ones are the lightest in colour and easy to see against the mud on which they rested: as you can see in the photo above. I call them yearlings, but they are more likely to be about 8 months old, since the breeding season starts in about two months.

I doubted that the young could hold their own against the monsters which ruled the creek. What could these young eat? I had my answer the next day. A carcass of a cow had been lying by the river for a day, and I found three young crocodiles feeding on it. The boatman told me that a carcass like that could feed a very large number of yearlings. I guess that even the adult crocodiles eat more or less anything that they can find. We saw deer and monkeys by the creek, and only the youngest seemed to venture close to the water. Perhaps the crocodiles are opportunistic feeders on these unwary young.

The crocodile is a star attraction in the protected area of Bhitarkanika. However, its speed and size probably means that one has to be extremely careful around them. There are signs everywhere which even the usually unruly Indian tourists follow. I hope accidents are very rare, otherwise the good job of conservation which this forest area does will be in danger.

By I. J. Khanewala

I travel on work. When that gets too tiring then I relax by travelling for holidays. The holidays are pretty hectic, so I need to unwind by getting back home. But that means work.

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