Bhitarkanika Wildlife Sanctuary and National Park

Site description (2004 baseline):

Site location and context
Bhitarkanika Wildlife Sanctuary (67,200 ha) and Bhitarkanika National Park (14,500 ha), located on the eastern coast, together represent one of India’s finest mangrove forests. The area was declared as a Wildlife Sanctuary in 1975 to protect the Estuarine or Saltwater crocodile Crocodylus porosus (Kar and Bustard 1981, 1990) but later it was also found to be a haven for birds (Pandav 1996). The Sanctuary has a coastline of 35 km on its eastern side known as the Gahirmatha coast, and is surrounded by the rivers Brahmani, Baitarani and their tributaries on the other three sides. The area is laden with alluvial silt brought down by the rivers and deposited in deltaic areas by regular tidal inundation. The vegetation is characterised by vast stretches of Phoenix paludosa. Pure formations of tree species such as Heritiera fomes, Excoecaria agallocha, Avicennia officinalis and A. marina occur in the Sanctuary. Other dominant tree species are Sonneratia apetala, Amoora cucullata, Cynometra iripa, Rhizophora mucronata and R. apiculata.

Key biodiversity

AVIFAUNA: Nearly 220 species of birds have been recorded from this area (Kar 1991, Pandav 1996). Bhitarkanika Wildlife Sanctuary is one of the few protected areas in India which has six sympatric species of kingfishers: Pied Ceryle rudis, Common Alcedo atthis, Brownwinged Halcyon amauropterus, White-throated Halcyon smyrnensis, Black-capped H. pileata and Collared Todiramphus chloris. Storkbilled Kingfisher Halcyon capensis was also recorded from this IBA (Mr. Anup Nayak pers. comm. to Bishwajit Mohanty). The Brown-winged and Collared kingfishers, along with the Mangrove Whistler Pachycephala grisola are mainly restricted to mangroves in India. In the Indian subcontinent, the Mangrove Whistler is otherwise found only in the Sunderbans of West Bengal and Bangladesh, and in a narrow zone fringing the shore in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands (Ali and Ripley 1987). According to Pandav (1996), fifty-seven species of winter visitors are recorded, with the highest numbers between November and February. The Northern Pintail Anas acuta is the most abundant migratory waterfowl. Occurrence of more than 3,000 Black-tailed Godwit Limosa limosa is also notable. The Wetlands International (2002) estimate of 1% biogeographical population of this bird is 1000 individuals, so Bhitarkanika holds about 3% of the total population of this species. Eighty-two species are reported breeding, including the Near Threatened Black-necked Stork Ephippiorhynchus asiaticus. Breeding colonies of Asian Openbill Anastomus oscitans, Intermediate Egret Mesophoyx intermedia, Little Egret Egretta garzetta, Grey Heron Ardea cinerea, Purple Heron Ardea purpurea, Black-crowned Night-heron Nycticorax nycticorax, Little Cormorant Phalacrocorax niger, Darter Anhinga melanogaster and Oriental White Ibis Threskiornis melanocephalus are located on Bhitarkanika Island in the Sanctuary. This breeding colony of water birds is listed as one amongst the top five heronries in India (Subramanya 1996). A survey of the heronry in July and August, 1993, revealed 9,910 nests on 5,500 trees, with the majority of nests, i.e. 7,800, belonging to the Asian Openbill (Pandav 1996). The next most abundant was the Intermediate Egret. Grey Heron had 200 nests, and Oriental Darter , 192 nests. This is the largest known breeding colony of this Near Threatened species, perhaps equal to the one in Keoladeo National Park at Bharatpur (another IBA). The Painted Stork Mycteria leucocephala also breeds here, but in small numbers. Pandav (1996) could locate only 28 nests on tall trees of Sonneratia apetala and Xylocarpus moluccensis, away from the main heronry. The Lesser Adjutant Leptoptilos javanicus was also observed nesting, its total population was estimated to be 20 (Pandav 1996). Anup Nayak (in litt. 2003) has mentioned sighting a flock of more than 50 Indian Skimmer Rynchops albicollis in Bhitarkanika in January 2003. Three species recorded during the survey, but not on the checklist of birds of Orissa prepared by the State Forest Department (Dani 1992), and hence considered new sight records for Orissa, are Eurasian Oystercatcher Haematopus ostralegus, Pintail Snipe Gallinago stenura and Chestnut-capped Babbler Timalia pileata. The Eurasian Oystercatcher is a common winter visitor to the west coast of India, but is uncommon on the east coast (Ali and Ripley 1987). A group of 19 Eurasian Oystercatchers was seen in the intertidal zones of the Gahirmatha coast during December and January. Pintail Snipe, a winter visitor to India, occurs in northeast India, but is more common in southern India and in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands (Ali and Ripley 1987). In Bhitarkanika, this snipe was seen along the marshy edges of the pools in winter. The southernmost limit of the Chestnut-capped Babbler in India was Calcutta (Ali and Ripley 1987). Small parties of 8-10 birds were observed in the Phoenix paludosa bushes of the mangrove forest (Pandav 1996).

OTHER KEY FAUNA: Bhitarkanika WLS and NP harbour the highest density of Saltwater Crocodile Crocodylus porosus in India. It also has the distinction of having the world’s largest known breeding ground of the Olive Ridley Sea Turtle Lepidochelys olivacea at Gahirmatha, located on its eastern boundary (Das and Kar 1990). Leopard Panthera pardus, and Wild Boar Sus scrofa are the other larger animals in the sanctuary. Water monitor Varanus salvator and King Cobra Ophiophagus hannah are also found.

Pressure/threats to key biodiversity
MAIN THREATS: Brackish water prawn culture ponds; Agriculture; Disturbance to birds; Bangladeshi Immigrants.

With the recent changes in land use pattern all along the Orissa coast (evident after 1993), the coastal wetlands and the agricultural fields adjoining wetlands are increasingly being converted into brackish water prawn culture ponds. The wetland adjoining the mangrove forest of Bhitarkanika harbours a good population of migratory waterfowl, and the conversion of coastal wetlands around Bhitarkanika has resulted in a loss of wintering ground for these birds. Due to the conversion of agricultural fields to prawn culture ponds, the Asian Openbills are losing feeding ground. In the near future, this may affect the breeding behaviour of these birds and may be detrimental for their survival in the long run (Pandav 1996). It has been alleged by NGOs working in Orissa that the large number of Bangladeshi immigrants living and operating around Bhitarkanika WLS are adversely affecting the Park and could threaten the survival of the Estuarine Crocodiles. While the government estimates their number at about 2,000, the Wildlife Society of Orissa has said that there are at least 15,000 in and around Bhitarkanika. Two hundred mechanised boats reportedly fish illegally in the creeks here, which is the main home for the crocodiles as well. Large-scale mangrove depletion too is attributed to this large immigrant population.

Key contributors: Bivash Pandav and Biswajit Mohanty.

Recommended citation
BirdLife International (2023) Important Bird Area factsheet: Bhitarkanika Wildlife Sanctuary and National Park. Downloaded from on 06/12/2023.