Across the top of this page is a cartoon commissioned from south Indian artist Ramya Sriram, about our recent project working with indigenous people within a mahseer stronghold. Velimeen is the name given to the Critically Endangered hump-backed mahseer by the Mullukuruma people of northern Kerala.
This aspect of our ongoing project looking at the ecology of these fish in the wild demonstrates that while we are excited by ground-breaking technology, there is much that can be learnt through simple observation. The knowledge possessed by local communities who live alongside mahseer rivers is a fantastic starting point to guide where studies should be focused.
Currently the only mahseer species under imminent threat of extinction, the hump-backed mahseer, Tor remadevii, is rightly a priority target of ours. Much of the available evidence and literature about the fish comes from the mainstem River Kaveri in Karnataka or from the River Moyar in Tamil Nadu. We decided that the upper reaches of many tributaries within the wider Kaveri basin, especially those rivers and streams in Kerala, are also vitally important areas to investigate.
We arranged fieldwork studies among the fishing communities of the Wayanad region, particularly among the indigenous Kuruma (also called Kurumba in some areas), Kurichiya, Adiyar and Paniyar peoples. Our field researcher, Dencin Rons Thampy, used a simple questionnaire as well as informal interviews to build a picture of: local understanding of mahseer; changes in populations over time; and how fish, rivers and the forest are embedded within local culture.
We are very lucky to have access to Dencin. He was born and brought up in this region and already has spent many years fishing with locals, walking through the forests and along rivers. His knowledge is already shaped by local experience.
A key aspect of local knowledge about ecology is that there is recognition of differences between at least three species of mahseer. The hump-backed mahseer, called velimeen by the Mullukuruma, is considered to be the native fish. The deeper-bodied Tor khudree, called neela vannal or kuyil meen, has only been appearing in recent decades and then there is a third with a more intriguing name. It is called varayan velimeen, of which more later.
Indeed, such is the level of respect for the velimeen, the Mullukuruma worship Pakkathappan (male) and Pakkathamman (female), who take the form of huge hump-backed mahseer still believed to be living in the rivers and streams of the area.
Dencin reported that: "there have been times when I have accompanied fishermen and they have caught a velimeen. Sometimes the fish make a croaking noise, which is what the tribal guys claim is the 'God fish' asking to be returned to the river. Because of this they return all hump-backs to the river but keep blue-finned Tor khudree for eating."
Symbiosis between fish of different species is another amazing piece of knowledge brought forward by the Mullukuruma fishers and deserving of more detailed study. They say that Hypselobarbus micropogon, the Endangered Korhi or pink carp, moves and cleans stones in mahseer spawning grounds. When the mahseer move in to spawn, the pink carp take advantage of a feast of eggs. The locals call the pink carp kallunthi, from kallu for pebbles and unthu, the verb meaning to push.
This area of catchment is very rich in fish diversity, with 136 different species, of which 16 are endemic to the Kaveri basin and two are known only from the River Kabini. Locals often refer to fishes with generic terms like yellow carp (manja kadunna, the Critically Endangered 'lesser mahseer', Neolissochilus wynaadensis), or forest carp (kattuvannal, possible an undescribed species).
Overall, there is a high proportion of threatened species in this area. Among the native fishes, four species are Critically Endangered, nine are Endangered, three are Vulnerable and four Near Threatened. Yet there are also 20 alien fish found within this sub-basin.
Our studies have also shown the presence of another Endangered mahseer, the Himalayan golden mahseer, Tor putitora, in quite large numbers and very large sizes. This is the fish called varayan, or striped velimeen. We can only surmise how they reached the basin of the River Kaveri, with the most likely explanation as part of the heavy restocking carried out over the last 40 years.
It is further evidence of the importance of conservation standards being adopted fully, as laid out by India's Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC). These include to protect or rehabilitate habitat as a first priority, with wild release of threatened wildlife subject to extremely stringent control by the Central Zoo Authority (CZA) and only used as a last resort.
There are multiple threats from introductions of alien fish species, including mahseers, with transmission of novel diseases or parasites being just one example. We do need to understand that fish introductions, even of hump-backed mahseer, could cause a catastrophic loss of some of those other fish or riverine animals that are critical and integral parts of the ecosystem that supports the hump-back.
If the river is no longer capable of supporting fish, throwing more fish in does not fix it.
Among other threats to this fragile region are the usual destructive fishing and over-fishing; dam building; deforestation; sand mining; and pollution, as seen elsewhere.
Also a threat is the inter-linking of rivers and the associated potential for movements of fish, other aquatic animals and associated pests or pathogens that are unique to each ecosystem. The Banasura Sagar dam, situated on the headwaters of Karamanathodu, a tributary of the Kabini River, feeds water through a canal to the Kakkayam dam on the upper Kuttiadi river, among others. This diverts water across the watershed of the Western Ghats, from the east-flowing drainage of the Kaveri basin, to the west-flowing drainages.
In a bid to allow more space for hump-backed mahseer and other vital freshwater species in and around Kuruva island, a stronghold of the fish as well as crocodiles and threatened small-clawed otters, discussions are ongoing about how to create a multi-species conservation zone. This area is adjacent to protected forest areas, has a large tributary joining the main river, and offers mixed river habitat in which multiple species of fish spawn.
For further information on the fish of this region, we recommend this excellent paper by our field researcher, Dencin: here.
Ramya Sriram's cartoon style, with simple, stick characters, was the perfect style to represent Ikkiri and his local forest, river and customs. We discussed how this project should look and had planning meetings over several weeks while Ramya was staying in the family home, in south India.
Ramya recalled watching mahseer in the Sringeri temple pool, but otherwise her experience of fish was very limited.
She said: "I remember fishing once while visiting Kerala but I was so scared when the fish flapped that I dropped it back into the water."
To reflect the subtleties of Ikkiri's knowledge, we were very careful to recreate local art representations of a forest temple, the way a river looks within the experience of what local people told Dencin is the best habitat for hump-backed mahseer and right down to the shape of the fish themselves.
We have two more potential cartoon projects featuring Ikkiri and are currently trying to find funding so that Ramya can start work on them. These will show more of the fascinating lives of the Mullukuruma people and the fish themselves, deep within their fragile forest and river homes.
Ramya publishes regular cartoons with wry insight into Indian family life and other observations, on her website and social media outlets. Another very popular aspect of her work is bespoke cartoons for weddings and other special occasions.
Be sure to check out www.thetapstories.com
Shoal was established to bring resources to freshwater conservation following reports that this critical habitat type and associated life is one of the most under-represented, yet most threatened on the entire planet.
With primary focus on the most endangered fish species, especially those either Critically Endangered or even those Extinct in the Wild, Shoal aims to:
Mobilise meaningful action for the conservation of threatened freshwater species.
Build capacity of partners to implement impactful freshwater conservation work.
Raise awareness of the need for more and better freshwater conservation action.
We at Mahseer Trust are proud to partner Shoal and value their support for our ongoing projects and future opportunities.
Visit Shoal at www.shoalconservation.org and add your support to the growing coalition of those fighting for those most endangered and essential ecosystems: freshwaters.