Dragon snakehead facing unique conservation challenge

Protecting wetlands and regulating use of pesticides and insecticides are among the recommendations as there has been a decline in area and quality of dragon snakehead’s habitats

Updated - December 13, 2023 09:18 pm IST

Published - December 13, 2023 08:35 pm IST - KOLLAM

Dragon snakehead fish

Dragon snakehead fish | Photo Credit: HANDOUT

While four freshwater fish endemic to Kerala have been included in the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) red list, Aenigmachanna gollum, the enigmatic dragon snakehead, may face serious conservation challenges.

Considered ‘living fossils’ and named after the character in Lord of the Rings, the fish species has become a hot favourite of traders following its discovery after the floods of 2018. Listed as vulnerable in the most recent assessment by IUCN red list, the species is currently found in less than ten locations in Kerala and their population is threatened by multiple anthropogenic stressors.

While the dragon snakehead is mostly seen in wetlands and nearby paddy fields, a single individual was collected from a homestead well by scientists.

“Its a subterranean fish whose distribution is embedded within human dominated landscapes, making conservation measures difficult. Though now it comes under Schedule II of the Wildlife Protection Act, the enforcement measures can hardly reach open-access areas like paddy fields. So far there has been no guidelines,” says Rajeev Raghavan, Kerala University of Fisheries and Ocean Studies (KUFOS), who led the team of scientists that identified Aenigmachanna gollum as a new species, genus, and family in 2019. Kryptoglanis shajii, Horaglanis abdulkalami and Pangio bhujia are the other fish species from the State and the three are listed as endangered.

Aenigmachanna gollum evolved around 120 million years ago, probably with dinosaurs in the Jurassic period. But since it was isolated in underground habitats, scientists say the extinction events on land may not have affected it. After the species was identified, it became one of the most wanted items in international aquarium pet trade and customs records prove that the export of the fish has already started.

“Due to its dragon like appearance, it is used as a good luck fish in far east countries. As per customs records, a consignment worth lakhs was sent to Hong Kong from India in 2021. Though capturing or selling was made a non-bailable offence under Wildlife Protection Act, the awareness is very low,” adds Dr. Raghavan.

While only around 25 specimens have been recorded in the scientific literature, there is nearly no information on the population status of the species. The assessment also observes the use of pesticides and insecticides in the paddy fields and the deterioration or quality of groundwater as other factors impacting the survival of the species.

Protecting wetlands and regulating the use of pesticides and insecticides are among the recommendations as there has been a decline in the area and quality of habitats.

“Since Aenigmachanna gollum is one of the most unique freshwater fish lineages of the world, more studies and conservation measures are needed. Cooperation of public is also very important as the species is found close to human habitats,” says C.P. Arjun, researcher.

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