KENDRAPARA: Rampant deforestation by prawn mafia operating within Bhitarkanika National Park has made the country’s second largest mangrove forest prone to cyclones and other natural calamities. This is evident from the considerable damage to the park’s flora including casuarina, palm and coconut trees by cyclone Bulbul even as it passed by without making landfall here.
As many as 45 villages with a population of one lakh around the national park have been badly affected by the cyclone. The reason for this has been attributed to denudation of mangrove forest in these areas by prawn mafia. Mangrove forests shelter the seaside villages from the impact of storms. But, over the years, green cover in these areas has decreased significantly. “It is the biggest uninterrupted stretch of mangrove forest we have in our village. But prawn mafia in nexus with forest officials have been clearing the forest as a result of which our houses caved in and many trees were uprooted in the storm. said 56-year-old Amar Kumar Manna of Pravati village.
“Nothing hurts more than watching our villages lose their mangrove cover. During the Super Cyclone of 1999, our village was saved due to the forest. Now the ecological treasure house has been systematically decimated,” said 59-year-old Sagar Manna, a retired teacher from Talachua village. There was a time when the mention of these areas conjured up images of virgin mangrove forests. However, those verdant visions are fading fast. Those who are worst affected are the villagers, who largely depend on the mangrove forests for their livelihood.
Bhitarkanika is home to a wide range of fauna including 3,000 spotted deer, various bird species and other species like Wild Boar, Jackal, Hyena, Jungle Cat, Fishing Cat, Water Monitor Lizard, Rhesus Macaque, Common Langur, Otter, Jungle Cat, Mongoose, Fox, Leopard Cat, Porcupine, Indian Civet Cat and Hare. It was designated as a national park on September 16, 1998 and as a Ramsar site by UNESCO on August 19, 2002.
DFO of the park Bikash Ranjan Dash said animals like spotted deer ventured into the dense mangrove forest to save themselves from the storm. Even as forest staff are on the ground and clean up work is underway, in several areas, the full extent of the damage is yet to be assessed. He said the Forest department is hoping that a long-term plan would be prepared to protect areas in and around the park from cyclones.