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Night stay ban irks park neighbours

Bhubaneswar/Kendrapara, Jan. 15: The Odisha forest department’s decision to ban night stay of local inhabitants within the premises of the Bhitarkanika National Park, known for its saltwater or estuarine crocodiles, has sparked off resentment among local residents.

The state forest department closed the park for visitors on January 10 following a clash between a group of local residents and forest officers. Now, it has decided not to allow night stay for people living within a 30-km radius of the national park.

“We have come to know that the attack on January 10 was made by a few local residents. If we allow them to stay within the limits of the sanctuary at night, it is likely that such acts of violence will occur again, which may eventually affect the safety of the tourists,” said Odisha forest minister Bijoyshree Routray.

“The residents are free to visit the national park during daytime. But I feel there is no need for them to stay there at night as their homes are located nearby,” he said.

The group of youths, who hailed from the nearby Aul village, had booked one room for their stay overnight on January 10. But they had arrived at the guesthouse around midnight while the park closes at 5pm. Moreover, the person, in whose name the room was booked, was not there among the people who have come to stay at the guesthouse. As they were not allowed the entry, they had beaten up forest guards and vandalised the guesthouse. They had also forcibly occupied one room.

However, the decision to restrict the entry of local residents evoked sharp protests at Rajnagar today. “We strongly oppose the move as people living within the 30-km radius of the national park will be deprived of enjoying night stay in this beautiful environment,” said Arun Rout, a local youth.

“We will be forced to take to streets if the administration goes ahead with its decision,” he said.

Paresh Das, another local resident, said: “Why all the local residents will be punished for some unruly elements? Instead of prohibiting all the local residents from entering into the park at night, the administration should nab the culprits and step up security measures in the park.”

The abrupt closure of the park in the midst of the peak tourist season has also left the tourists and tour operators high and dry. Over 500 advance tourist bookings made to the park stood suspended following the closure notice, said a tour operator.

“With the closure of the Bhitarkanika National Park, which is known across the world for its rich bio-diversity, there remain very little things in the state that will attract foreign tourists,” said Srikant Mishra, a tour operator.

“We are taking measures for the reopening of the national park for tourists and visitors. But we will have to ensure the safety of both the forest staffs and the tourists before lifting the ban,” said divisional forest officer of Rajnagar mangrove forest division Manoj Kumar Mahapatra.

Kendrapara collector Durga Prasad Behera said the administration had taken up the matter. “The administration will extend best possible co-operation to the forest department for maintenance of peace in the place,” he said.