Recent publication of India's Wildlife (Protection) Amendment Bill 2021, which offers updates to the Wildlife (Protection) Act 1972 and subsequent amendments, is a mixed bag for conservation.
On the one hand, there appear to be new loopholes with potential for exploitation of elephants. Then there is the possibility that important, smaller predatory species like civets, jackals or foxes can be declared as vermin. Certainly animals like wild pigs and nilgai are listed as Schedule II species and are also classed as vermin in some states, and do undergo extermination drives.
Importantly, despite recommendations from the National Mission on Biodiversity and Human Well-being to follow the IPBES description that any species moved beyond its native range is non-native or alien, the bill only describes species from beyond India's borders as a non-native alien. How this stands to be policed when alien fish species can easily migrate along transboundary rivers is among the issues requiring more thought.
Bodies such as Zoo Outreach Organization and Nature Conservation Foundation have drafted suggestions for amendments to the bill. These include changing the use of the word "vermin" and taking steps to ensure the correct scientific nomenclature is used, so as not to cause confusion. Unfortunately, as we will see, there is plenty of scope for misunderstanding.
On the flip-side, a highlight is the addition of freshwater fishes to Schedule I (see left).
Osteobrama belangeri, commonly known as pengha, has probably been wiped out in India in the wild and may only survive in breeding hatcheries, plus a few locations in Myanmar. In common with many freshwater species, this important food source has most likely suffered due to dam building and water diversions. Assamese kingfish, Semiplotus semiplotus is Red Listed as Vulnerable.
Sahyadria denisonii (since a revision of genera within the small barbs. It was previously identified as Puntius denisonii) is a welcome addition and deserves its place under Schedule I. It is best known as the redline torpedo barb.
Every other fish in the Schedules spends all or most of its time in saltwater.
A target fish in an important, shared landscape
The redline torpedo barb, also known in the ornamental fish trade as Miss Kerala, or the Denison barb, is under massive threat. A hurried conservation action plan has been said to have caused more damage to populations by allowing dealers and collectors to harvest the fish during their breeding season. It is believed that from the time of seasonal restrictions being placed up to when a more comprehensive study was undertaken, as much as 50% of the entire population had been lost to the home aquarium trade. This resulted in a revised IUCN Red Listing, from Vulnerable to Endangered.
Breeding was believed to take place during June/July and then again in October. This idea was reached due to a few isolated accounts of fish in spawning condition during those months. A conservation action plan was agreed, with a ban on taking fish during those spawning months.
Subsequent study by Simmy Solomon, M Ramprasanth and Fibin Baby (link to paper) demonstrated that these fish spawn from October to March, with a few "minor differences in the peak breeding months between the three river systems". Clearly this would cause trouble for the fish if they continued to be caught in the wild in the breeding season.
So how does this link to mahseer? One of the rivers in which this gorgeous fish is found, is the Bhavani, a tributary of the River Kaveri basin. Hump-backed mahseer are also found in this river, in particular in the upper reaches, away from human disturbance, as our local field researcher found recently.
In most of the distribution range, mainly west-flowing rivers of southern Karnataka and Kerala, the redline torpedo barb swims in the same water as Tor malabaricus, a much less studied mahseer. There are clear benefits to mahseer if habitat is conserved on behalf of the smaller fish.
We can and should learn lessons from the instigation of a poorly researched conservation action plan. While calls to "do anything we can and do it now" are understandable, a cool head, following widely understood guidelines after a methodical ecological study will always offer the best chance of conservation success.
One final complication is that the redline torpedo barb is two distinct and very similar-looking species, not just one. As Zoo Outreach Organization point out: "No reason why this (Sahyadria denisonii) is included while the other species S. chalakudiensis is not."
As discussions among India's ornamental fish experts have concluded "Some person who has never seen these fishes and plants, never visited the habitat, no interest, sitting inside Air-conditioned rooms makes these lists mostly from some old document or even Google."
(Santosh R in Meenkaran Facebook page)
Input from people like Beta Mahavaraj and Nikhil Sood is sorely missing in the addition of ornamental species to the Schedules. While there are and have been undoubted threats due to indiscriminate collection from the wild, only by working within these groups will best practise be adopted more widely. Similarly, these leading lights of the ornamental trade have intimate knowledge of the habitats and better understanding of the ecology of these fish. They should be informing any conservation planning and helping to provide the platform through which comments, publication or outreach take place.
In fact Beta Mahavaraj believes that the redline torpedo barb is more widespread than previously thought and should be reassessed by the Red Listing committee. Nikhil Sood said "Sahyadria denisonii is found in almost 11 rivers of Kerala and Karnataka with some of the highest endemic aquatic fauna in the country," as reported by The Hindu and others newspapers.
A question of breeding
Included in the Wildlife Act amendment is a statement on captive breeding with implications for ornamental fish like the redline torpedo barb and also for conservation targets like mahseer.
For species within the Schedules, it may not be permissible, in future, to take broodstock from the wild. The suggestion is that parents of wildlife under future conservation breeding programmes must be bred from captive stock.
For the redline torpedo barb, artificial breeding may be a solution to allow continuing trade. The question and complication, of course, is how to ensure fish for sale have genuinely been bred in captivity and not sourced from the wild? Genetic studies (useful paper here) would provide a way forward, but would bring huge cost implications.
The Wildlife (Protection) Act 1972 and subsequent amendments state that declarations must be made by anyone with possession of an animal listed under Schedule I. They have to report it to the Chief Wildlife Warden of their home state and cannot have "control, custody or possession" nor can they "offer for sale, or transport" those animals. Those who have reported possession correctly, upon the listing of the animal, are able to keep them and may be able to breed from them.
The important distinction with implication for mahseer must now be that, as the Acts only allow for collection and breeding of threatened wildlife by those recognised and under the purview of the Central Zoo Authority, and that freshwater fish species are now accepted as wildlife and included within the Schedules, will all conservation breeding of fish be taken out of the hands of the Fisheries Department?
Should fish with important economic value be added to the Schedules? This would include those species known as food fish, like pengha and the Assamese kingfish but also Tor putitora, the Himalayan golden mahseer. This fish, despite being Endangered is a popular eating fish, especially in the Northeast Hill states and across Nepal. Breeding is usually done for "conservation", but huge numbers of fish are also taken for the pot or for sale.
Whenever we run data collection drives, a question that crops-up all too regularly is "why does Mahseer Trust want to stop fishing communities taking mahseer to eat?" For which the answer is: we do not and have never said we do. But still the dichotomy between conservation and livelihoods exists, even if only in the minds of riverside dwellers.
Then there is a question we have asked many times: should mahseer, in particular those at high extinction risk, like the hump-backed mahseer, be added to the Schedules for legal protection?
Currently, there are no national laws in India that prohibit catching and killing mahseer. The only controls are local laws prohibiting fishing in some locations and a few local bodies whose own rules or by-laws prohibit taking mahseer.
But given the common misidentification of mahseer when breeding and the mislabelling of species in the Schedules, who would be able to police and enforce protection of Tor malabaricus (Endangered) while allowing angling for Tor khudree (Least Concern), for instance? With species like Tor tor not even conclusively identified, thanks to decades of assumptions about three distinctly different-looking fish across India, Nepal and Bangladesh, many important species would still not get the protection they probably deserve.
Nature Conservation Foundation, in their responses to the bill, have stated quite clearly that they believe all species in the highest three threat categories on the Red List should, automatically be added to Schedule I.
If that were carried out, the following Indian mahseer would go into Schedule I: Tor malabaricus; T. putitora; and T. remadevii. Among lesser mahseers, Neolissochilus wynaadensis and Naziritor chelynoides would also both be included.
In 2007, two of our team visited a small river that flows from the base of Pushpagiri mountain, in Kodagu, Karnataka. Tales of striped mahseer drew them there, on a journey by road and foot across a scenic plateau into a thriving village.
At the river, shoals of fish could be easily seen. The village priest came to see who these strangers were, visiting his village. Introductions over, the priest took a leafy branch and thrashed the water "calling" the fish to him. With the aid of a polarising lens on the camera, it was clear to see these fish were a kind of mahseer. The photos and subsequent visits by scientists confirmed that these fish belonged to a northern range extension of Neolissochilus wynaadensis.
On the original visit, our team were not allowed to handle the fish. The priest explained that they were sacred to the villagers. When asked what form reverence for the fish takes, the priest said "we hold a festival for the fish every year. I throw dynamite into the river and we eat all the fish that die."
If these fish are added to Schedule I, what then for the villagers? Prosecution (under Wildlife (Protection) Act, quite apart from illegal use of explosives) could lead to a prison sentence of up to seven years. Understanding how such prohibition would impact upon religious festivals involving wildlife is a thorny question to answer.
These fish are within the same catchment as the large hump-backed mahseer that was killed by a fishing village in 2020. Those villagers faced sanctions on their access to licenses following this tragedy, even though there is no law forbidding them taking the fish.
Which leaves us to ask: what impact will this have on the use of angling ecotourism as a driver of conservation value? Locals who routinely use poisons or dynamite have been prepared to give up using destructive fishing methods as long as they can expect some tourism income. The angling ban in the Protected Areas of Karnataka from 2010, a move designed to stop exploitation of mahseer in particular, seems to have resulted in an increase in dynamite poaching again after years of successful employment through catch-and-release angling holidays.
In our meetings and discussions across the whole mahseer range, we often use India's Constitution and laws as examples of how a set of modern conservation guidelines should look. When we discuss how to create conservation frameworks with government officials and NGOs in countries such as Nepal, Myanmar or Cambodia, we take a lead from India's example.
Unfortunately, errors of presentation can be sufficient to provide wide legal loopholes for the unscrupulous, and mistakes in species identity will only compound matters.
A fine summation of many of the issues surrounding this bill was written by Bahar Dutt and published in the Hindustan Times (paywall) recently. We must hope that the changes requested by our colleagues are approved when this bill is finally confirmed by Union Minister of Environment, Forests and Climate Change, Bhupender Yadav.
The final paragraph in Bahar Dutt's article leaves the reader with a sense of what could have been, while assuming the changes will not be adopted. The concluding sentence offers a bittersweet view of 2022. "An emboldened Wildlife Protection Act 2021 could have been (our italics) a welcome change in the new year."
Let us hope India's freshwaters and fish can become beacons of hope across the mahseer range. We will still be working to show the value of clean rivers and the mighty mahseer as a cultural icon, officially protected or not.
While we appreciate all donations made directly to us (link here), our partners at Shoal are doing a great job of targeting resources at the most vulnerable freshwater fish. They also support our work on the hump-backed mahseer.
If you want to know more about the redline torpedo barb, start here on the Shoal website:
And, of course, every bit of help for these cute fish also helps mahseer in the wilds of south India.