How various conservation initiatives have saved the freshwater tiger from extinction

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The tiger is the largest living cat species, one of the most famous and popular of the world’s charismatic megafauna. In contrast to the tiger that inhabits the jungle, there is an equally majestic tiger that jewels the water. It’s a large, wondrous fish that shimmers gold as it glides through speckled streams and rivers. For the uninitiated, this is Mahseer, the freshwater tiger.

Once upon a time, freshwater species thrived happily in the rapids of the Himalayan and Sahyadri Mountains, along with other rivers and lakes across the country. Soon the mighty Mahseer fell victim to human greed and became the target of fishermen and fishing companies. Of the 15 Mahseer species in India, five were critically endangered.

It was exactly 50 years ago that Tata Power decided to step in to save the big fish that literally felt out of the water. His efforts paid off, and this year on World Environment Day, the company announced that the bluefin tuna (Tor Khudree) – one of the two Mahseer species bred at Tata Powers Walvan Hatchery in Lonavala – is now removed from the IUCN Red List is. The IUCN has granted it Least Concern status, which means that the species is no longer critically endangered.

The Golden Mahseer is still on the list, which calls for greater dedication to helping the endangered species swim out of the red. “The initiative that Tata Power started 50 years ago is now more urgent than ever. Last but not least, we owe it to our children. And this could only be demonstrated by keeping important species like the Mahseer alive, ”says Vivek Vishwasrao, Head – Biodiversity, Tata Power.

Mahseer and life cycle assessment

Rushikesh Chavan, head of the Habitat Trust, can only agree with Vishwasrao regarding Maheseer’s importance for bank ecology. “Mahseer is equated with the tiger. Its name comes from mahi meaning fish and sher from tiger. There are around 15 species of Mahseer in India, some of which are classified as endangered. They are omnivorous and eat a wide variety of foods, making them an indicator of river ecology and water security, ”he says.

The river ecologist and conservationist from Bengaluru Neethi Mahesh, who is currently involved with WCS-India, works tirelessly on the spatial ecology and conservation of Mahseer fish with the Jenu Kuruba, a forest-dwelling tribe in the Western Ghats, for whom she also The Der ” Conservation Hero Grant ”from Habitats Trust in 2019.

Mahesh, who works on a project called Riparian Habitat Conservation along the Cauvery River in the Coorg district, says, “Mahseers are large fish that belong to the Cyprinidae, or common carp, family. Mahseer are considered to be an indicator species of freshwater streams and rivers, which means that all habitat-changing influences, especially through anthropogenic stressors, can impair the survival of the species. ”

She highlights how Mahseer’s omnivorous nature makes it difficult to ignore the potential role in the seed dispersal of important species of shore flora. “They are also prey to predatory species such as otters, crocodiles and fish-eating birds, and thus play an important role in the food chain,” says Mahesh.

Emphasizing the need to increase Mahseer numbers to stabilize biodiversity while keeping river pollution under control, Vishwasrao says, “Mahseer is sensitive to dissolved oxygen levels, water temperature and sudden climatic changes. Apart from that, it is not able to endure pollution at all. So while we spew garbage into our rivers, we are not only ringing the death knell for the Mahseer, but also dropping an essential indicator of freshwater ecosystems. ”

Conservation measures

Mahesh explains how there have been several recommendations and attempts to promote Mahseer as a “flagship species” (a charismatic animal that promotes awareness), similar to recognizing tigers as a flagship species. “While the protection of tigers receives attention at the landscape level, the Mahseer protection can give the river landscapes the same meaning,” she says.

But Mahseer conservation, although it deserves attention, is nothing new in the cultural-religious context of India. Venerated in various forms, including as the incarnation of Lord Vishnu, Mahseer fish have always been protected in many temples along the rivers in India.

“Community fish sanctuaries are more common in the northeast; Meghalaya, for example, is known for its exemplary management and protection of fish populations passed down by indigenous knowledge and generations of sustainable natural resource / fishery management. Conservation NGOs and ecotourism-based recreational fishing groups also play an important role in the preservation of Mahseer, with further scope for recognition, ”she adds.

Chavan explains that conservation efforts are still mixed. “There are good conservation initiatives that are bringing Mahseer back from extinction, but overall it’s worrying. Mahseer’s inherent biology (long maturity, low fertility and long hatching time) along with habitat degradation, overfishing and pollution make it difficult for the species, ”he says.

Vishwasrao emphasizes the importance of learning freshwater ecology in order to understand the role of Mahseer Conservation, seeks concerted efforts at the individual and organizational level to reduce water pollution, and calls for community support and volunteering by the organizations and NGOs to get visible results in this direction.

Chavan praised Tata Power’s efforts, saying, “Tata has set an example of what the industry can do. Academic institutions need to do more ecological work on the hydrology of the streams inhabited by Mahseer. The list is long, so choose the best way to contribute. “

Catch her young

Vishwasrao said measures to conserve Mahseer could include more natural breeding areas, changes in fishing practices, and encouraging community participation to keep this project going for a long time. “Since its inception, Tata Power’s Mahseer initiative has carried out various activities for young people as part of its Club Enerji initiative. This includes excursions that draw attention to the beautiful Mahseer. The idea is to encourage children to learn about an important aspect of their ecology while at the same time getting the older children to enjoy the sport of Mahseer fishing and then releasing it back into the water, ”says Vishwasrao.

These activities bode well for Mahseer. Mahesh attributes the growing awareness of Mahseer outside of the regions where they can be found to media coverage and the efforts of groups and individuals advocating the conservation of the species. “The freshwater tiger is also becoming more recognized as a hot topic for research, conservation, and outreach. One of the most recent initiatives involved an organization working with a group of artists to create a Mahseer installation from recycled material, with a walk-through gallery full of Mahseer, freshwater fish, habitat imagery and information in the model. It has made people from all walks of life interested in freshwater fish and rivers that receive little to no attention, ”she says.

Chavan stresses the need for intensive and concerted efforts to protect Mahseer as these are widespread and common threats, Chavan adds: “However, local threats need to be identified and specific protection programs implemented.”

Mahesh urges civil society groups and NGOs to be vocal about sustainable land use along rivers to ensure that pollution and activities that disrupt the ecosystem are contained and that rivers and their fish populations have a better chance of survival. “Mahseer conservation requires a country or river-related plan with the delimitation of important Mahseer habitats on which one must concentrate. What we need is not just funding for Mahseer, but a holistic approach to Mahseer protection that encompasses the entire habitat of the river. Organizations and institutions need to support more individuals in this area in order to carry out research, public relations and nature conservation measures, such as public relations and, if necessary, restoration, ”says the river ecologist.

Tourism prospects

Tata Power, who has been active in the field of Mahseer breeding for 50 years, is delighted with the result of their tireless efforts. “In contrast to typical corporate practice, the success of this company is measured by the fact that you literally go into the red so that the Mahseer is removed from the IUCN list of endangered people! Rivers and lakes that were once deprived of the Mahseer are now teeming with them after the juveniles introduced from the Walvan hatchery began to breed and increase. Mahseer are now increasingly being spotted by enthusiastic anglers in various places, ”says Vishwasrao.

Mahesh sees great potential for Mahseer tourism in the country. “We already have fish sanctuaries that are visited by tourists and religious believers. The untapped potential lies in the ecotourism industry with catch-and-release (C&R) recreational fishing. Sustainable means of C&R fishing tourism have proven to be a great source of income for local communities while at the same time keeping fish populations under surveillance and protection through strictly enforced policies and rules, ”she adds.

However, Chavan agrees that it is, but one has to be careful. “Tourism is a double-edged sword. Poorly designed and implemented tourism models can not only ruin Mahseers, but also disrupt, if not destroy, river ecology and water security, ”he says.

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Posted on: Sunday September 19, 2021 7:00 AM IST


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