The mahseer’s lost ground

Print edition : April 15, 2016

A blue-finned mahseer weighing 40 pounds (18.14 kilograms) caught in the Cauvery by Owen-Bosen on January 5, 2010. Photo: Sandeep Chakravarti

An orange-finned mahseer weighing 90 pounds (43 kg) caught in the Cauvery by Alberto Parish on January 13, 2008. Photo: John Bailey

An orange-finned-mahseer, which was caught and released during a survey conducted by WASI, with permission from the Tamil Nadu Forest Department, in the Moyar on March 13. Photo: AJT Johnsingh

The blue tail of a blue-finned mahseer. Photo: AJT Johnsingh

The Bhavani river and the Pillur dam may still support a population of the orange-finned mahseer. Photo: AJT Johnsingh

The Moyar has a population of the orange-finned mahseer. The blue-finned mahseer has not been introduced in this river. Photo: AJT Johnsingh

The Cauvery during the monsoon months. The orange-finned mahseer here can weigh up to 68 kg. Photo: AJT Johnsingh

Hogenakkal falls. It forms the eastern end of the orange-finned mahseer’s habitat in the lower Cauvery. Photo: AJT Johnsingh

Shivasamudram falls. It marks the beginning of the orange-finned mahseer’s habitat in the lower Cauvery. Photo: AJT Johnsingh

The Nandhour valley in Uttarakhand. It is home to the golden mahseer, the goral, the serow, the sambar, the elephant and the tiger. Photo: AJT Johnsingh

The golden mahseer, caught and released in the Ramganga river in Uttarakhand. Photo: Misty Dillon

The orange-finned mahseer is on the verge of extinction in its original habitat, the Cauvery river, following unregulated fishing and the introduction of the blue-finned mahseer. There is an urgent need to restore its status.

THE large orange-finned mahseer (Tor species, not classified) is an iconic sport fish endemic to the Cauvery river basin, which includes the Cauvery (from Kodagu in Karnataka to Hogenakkal, when the river plunges into Tamil Nadu), the Kabini, the Moyar and the Bhavani. Also known as the hump-backed mahseer, as adults develop a dorsal hump, this freshwater fish has broken thousands of fishing lines, hundreds of rods and reels, and dragged numerous anglers into the water. The Cauvery now has an abundant population of the blue-finned mahseer ( Tor khudree), a non-native, artificially bred fish which was introduced without foresight.

An orange-finned mahseer weighing 120 pounds (54.43 kilograms), caught by J. Wet. Van Ingen in the Kabini on March 22, 1946, was the largest ever catch in these waters until a few years ago. On March 13, 2011, the British angler Ken Loughran broke that record by catching a 130-pound (55 kg) mahseer in the Cauvery in Kodagu district.

Only the fish caught on rod and line is taken for the record and not the ones caught in fishing nets or by other means such as dynamiting, poisoning or using hand lines with bait.

The Kabini in Karnataka lost all its mahseer population following the construction of the Kabini reservoir in 1974 and as a result of decades of unregulated fishing.

One portion of the Cauvery where angling has benefited the mahseer and the local people is the 40-kilometre stretch between the Shivasamudram Falls in Mandya district and Mekedatu in Kanakapura taluk of Ramanagaram district. (Mekedatu gets its name from two rocks hanging over a narrow gorge which a goat ( meke) could easily jump ( datu) across.) In fact, when the water level in the Cauvery is high, the mahseer habitat stretches from Shivasamudram to Hogenakkal Falls, a distance of 70 km. The narrow gorges of Mekedatu may not be a barrier for a powerful swimmer like the mahseer when the Cauvery is in spate and the water overflows the gorges.

The Cauvery Wildlife Sanctuary was established in 1987, but angling camps in the region were operational from 1972. They were discontinued only in 2010 following a High Court ruling in a case relating to the running of fishing camps on the Cauvery. The first agency to care for this stretch of river was the Wildlife Association of South India (WASI). It ran temporary fishing camps from 1972 to 1999 and saved the fish by preventing dynamiting, gill-netting and other such harmful activities. Thereafter, Jungle Lodges and Resorts Ltd, an autonomous institution under the Karnataka Tourism Department, took over this stretch of the river and established the Bheemeshwari Fishing Camp in 1984. Eventually, two other camps, Doddamakkali and Galibore, were established. These camps followed “catch, photograph and release” angling; that is, the mahseer was first caught, a rope was tied through its gills and mouth, the fish was then allowed to rest for an hour or so after which the angler would lift it for photographs to be taken and then release it into the waters. The Doddamakkali camp protected the river stretch up to Shivasamudram. The Galibore camp took care of the stretch between the Arkavati at Sangam and Mekedatu. The Bheemeshwari camp was located between Galibore and Doddamakkali. The Doddamakkali camp was abandoned after angling was stopped there.

Angling and other related activities, such as rafting, coracle rides, birdwatching and trekking, helped raise significant revenue. In 2010, for example, non-Indian anglers paid $125 a person a night on a twin-sharing basis and foreign non-anglers paid $70. The rates per Indian angler and non-angler were Rs.4,900 and Rs.3,500 respectively. In 2009-10, angling and the nature tourism programme generated a little over Rs.400 lakh, which enabled the management to employ about 60 individuals from the local community as assistants and fish guards. This helped reduce incidents of poaching.

Sandeep Chakravarti, once an avid angler and a member of WASI, has the history of the angling programme on the Cauvery at his fingertips. According to him, this conservation measure, which gave protection to the fish and employment to the local people, enabled anglers to continue to catch fish weighing between 80 (36.28 kg) and 100 pounds (45.35 kg). It is obvious that if this angling programme had not been undertaken, poachers would have wiped out what was possibly the only population of large mahseer in the world. In the Bheemeshwari camp, a trophy of a 107-pound (48.53 kg) mahseer, which was caught in 1927, is kept on display. This unique mahseer habitat will be destroyed forever if the controversial reservoir across the Cauvery at Mekedatu comes up.

In the late 1970s, encouraged by mahseer enthusiasts of Karnataka, the Cauvery was populated, without foresight, with the blue-finned mahseer obtained from Tata Power’s hatchery at Lonavala, Maharashtra. The Lonavala hatchery is doing yeoman service in mahseer conservation and it has distributed thousands of fishlings all over India and even abroad for restocking rivers and reservoirs. So, one must not blame mahseer enthusiasts as nobody knew that the blue-finned mahseer would replace the native species.

In 2014, when the fish biologists Adrian Pinder of the Mahseer Trust, United Kingdom, Rajeev Raghavan of St. Albert’s College, Kochi, and J. Robert Britton of Bournemouth University, United Kingdom, analysed angler catch data from the Cauvery between 1998 and 2012, on the basis of 23,620 hours of fishing effort, they found that the weight of the fish caught ranged from 0.45 kg to 46.8 kg and the blue-finned phenotype contributed to 95 per cent of the catch and the orange-finned formed the rest. In 1998, the ratio of orange-finned to blue-finned was 1:4, but by 2012 this dropped to 1:218. Recruitment in the orange-finned was negligible and with an aging population, it became obvious that the orange-finned was close to becoming extinct. The blue-finned phenotype continues to recruit strongly, which is a clear indication that the mahseer population in the Cauvery has undergone a considerable shift in the past 30 years.

The Rod in India , a book by Henry Sullivan Thomas written in the late 1800s, speaks about the orange-finned mahseer in the Cauvery.

Steve Lockett, a U.K.-based angler and natural history photojournalist, rightly points out that if the orange-finned mahseer were to gain an International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) listing, it would be listed as critically endangered, necessitating the highest level of protection, as it is endemic to the Cauvery basin. Surprisingly, the orange-finned mahseer does not have a clear taxonomic identity (scientific name). So, unless the species gets a scientific name and identity, its conservation status in the IUCN listing cannot be established, and it will be difficult to get international support and funding to develop conservation planning for the species.

The Cauvery waters are now “adulterated” with the blue-finned mahseer, and the status of the orange-finned fish in the Kabini (below the dam), as a result of unregulated fishing, is dismal. Even stretches upstream may be facing the problem of the introduced species outnumbering the native fish. The late Colonel John Wakefield, affectionately known as Papa John, who was living in and managing the Kabini River Lodge, one of the facilities of Jungle Lodges and Resorts Ltd, released some 3,000 fry of blue-finned mahseer in the reservoir in front of the lodge some 20 years ago. He used to lament in the subsequent years that there was no sign of the fish he had released in the reservoir. One possibility is that the introduced fish may have gone upstream into the Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary from where the Kabini rises. This warrants a survey of the upper reaches of the Kabini. Papa John died on April 26, 2010, at the age of 96. He was fond of angling for murrel ( Channa marulius) in the Cauvery.

It appears that the Moyar and the Bhavani may not be facing the problem of blue-finned mahseer. The late Major Richard Radcliffe, a keen angler and hunter, who was living in the Nilgiris and was closely associated with the Nilgiri Game Association (now the Nilgiri Wildlife and Environment Association), used to fish in the Moyar. I have heard him speak about the orange-finned mahseer weighing about 10 kg. Radcliffe was interred in the compound of the Mukurthy Fishing Hut built by the Nilgiri Game Association near the Mukurthy National Park in the high hills of the Nilgiris.

The article by the late Lt Col R.W. Burton in Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society in 1940 has several exciting episodes of fishing in the Bhavani. There is a mention of a 30-pound (13.6 kg) fish with “broad bullock-like back and bright red fins”. He praises malaria as the most efficient and ever watchful of all game wardens, which preserved the wild beasts and fish from the destructive hands of humans.

On July 15, 2013, Pradeep Damodaran wrote in his blog about a sexagenarian, Gordon Andrew Thompson from Karamadai, Mettupalyam, near Coimbatore, catching a four-foot-long, 28-kg mahseer with a distinct red caudal fin from the Bhavani. This implies that the Bhavani may still hold some orange-finned mahseer. Of all the rivers, the Moyar gets the best protection as it is bordered by the Mudumalai, Bandipur and Sathyamangalam Tiger Reserves, ensuring a secure future for the mahseer.

Steve Lockett rightly says that once a brood stock of orange-finned mahseer is traced and correctly identified to the species level, it will be possible for eggs and milt to be stripped and a captive breeding programme started to save this mighty fish.

The governments of Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala should collaborate to restore the iconic mahseer in the Cauvery basin. The possibility of controlling the population of the blue-finned mahseer should also be explored so as to make the habitat secure for the orange-finned mahseer. One way of reducing the population of the blue-finned mahseer would be by promoting angling on the lines carried out before 2010. The revenue generated through the angling programme can be used for the conservation of the orange-finned mahseer.

The golden mahseer

My experience with the mahseer has been largely along the streams and rivers in the foothills of the Himalayas where I have tried to catch the golden mahseer, one of the most beautiful wildlife species in India. The Ganga, the Kolu, the Ramganga, the Nandhour, the Ladhya, the Yamuna and the Sharada are some of the habitats of this splendid species. I am lucky enough to have explored all these rivers. In the Kolu and the Nandhour, it is difficult to avoid stepping on the numerous tracks of tigers and elephants as one moves from pool to pool. In the Kolu river valley, on seeing an angler, the goral, which is often hunted by the leopard, will let out its sneezing alarm call from the steep ridge top. In the Nandhour valley, the serow may watch an angler from its steep rocky nallah overgrown with bushes; the red-headed trogon will fly across the nallah, Indian pied and great hornbills will fly overhead; and white-capped redstarts and stork-billed and crested kingfishers will shy away from the angler. In the Nandhour, one day in October 1938, Jim Corbett and William Ibbotson, who were on their way to Chuka to kill the Thak man-eater, are said to have caught 125 mahseer.

The best epitaph for the mahseer comes from Corbett. The mahseer was the fish of his dreams, and he rightly opined that angling for the mahseer in the Himalayan foothills was a sport fit for the kings. Using the decades-long expertise available with the Tata hatchery, effort should be made to recover the mahseer population and revive angling by involving more youth in one of the finest forms of sport.

A.J.T. Johnsingh is with the Nature Conservation Foundation, Mys u r u , and WWF-India.

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