Not long ago, Ikshu, a keen angler, had called to ask whether we had seen Baale meenu (Wallago attu) in the fish markets of Mysore. We wondered why he was asking us this, since we always knew this fish as quite a common species in the rivers of the South. He went on to explain that he was not aware of even a single Baale meenu being caught these days in the river Tunga which flows near his house. So he was hoping to somehow catch a few either in the Tunga or Bhadra rivers, rear and breed them, and then reintroduce them into the Tunga. We were quite surprised by his concern. We have never known Ikshu as a conservationist, even though he is fond of the forests and rivers around his home.
But anyway, we did enquire in the fish market of Mysore, and Rangaswamy, who has sold freshwater fish here for over 35 years, told us that Baale meenu had indeed become rare over the last two years. Even the local eel variety had dramatically diminished over the years, he pointed out. This information got us worried about the future of the river Cauvery. These were just the symptoms, we realised, there must be something seriously going wrong in the depths of the Cauvery.
The river Cauvery makes her humble beginning as a trickle in the Shola grasslands of the Sahyadri mountains. Within a short distance she becomes a rapidly flowing stream, joined by many others as she thunders down the evergreen tropical forests and becomes a relatively calm river as she reaches the plains running through thickly populated civilisation, delivering all their needs along her way. The habitations have mainly arisen because of the river Cauvery herself, as she flows eastwards. In many places, the riverine forests and banks of the river are safe havens for wild mammals and birds.
At the end of her journey, where the Cauvery flows into the Bay of Bengal, there is another spectacular display of landscape and life, with the merging of fresh water and salt water. This brackish water is home to the unique mangrove forests, whose stilt roots on muddy waters are a paradise for a variety of shrimps, crabs, shellfish and eels. Birds like the white-bellied sea eagle, the black-headed kingfisher, plovers, gulls and others feed in these murky waters and use the mangroves for roosting and nesting.
Rivers are not just so much tmc ft of water flowing into the sea; they are the life forces that create and support different ecosystems along their course. The evolution of aquatic vegetation, fishes, mammals, reptiles, molluscs, shrimps, snails, crabs, frogs, spiders, etc., and the co-evolution of parasites with them, create extremely complex and fragile systems which vary from river to river.
Free flowing rivers without shackles are testimony to a healthy earth system at work. But worldwide there are innumerable examples of ecological disasters which have occurred due to damming, joining of aquatic bodies and introduction of alien species for commercial exploitation. Unfortunately, the Cauvery is no different. With the number of dams and barrages increasing along her course, there is less fresh water flowing into the mangrove wetlands where she meets the Bay of Bengal. This has made these brackish waters more salty and led to the decline of several mangrove plants that are very sensitive to changes in salinity. The associated fauna in such areas would also consequently show a decline.
When Rangaswamy mentioned that the eel catch had gone down in the recent years, without a conscious effort, the journey of eels ran through our minds. Eels travel hundreds of kilometres to breed in the sea. On their way back to the rivers and streams, the young adults jump up waterfalls, crawl over rocks, cross wet grasslands and dig through wet sand, but dams are a bit too much for them to handle. Their journey that has evolved over millions of years might be coming to a halt, and with that a major link in the ecosystem might be lost forever.
It depressed us, knowing that though all of us on the Deccan Plateau have so much dependence on these rivers, we rarely spare a thought for the health of these river ecosystems.
Meanwhile, Prakash, a friend who lives in the heart of Malnad, invited us to join him for a small get-together. We did go, because, as part of that occasion, he was going to release a few hundred fingerlings into the stream next to his house. Why did he want to do this? It seems, two years back he had taken his daughter to the stream, assuring to show her lots of fish and shrimps. After all, he had caught crabs and fishes in that stream during his childhood. But now he realised that the once perennial stream did not flow throughout the year anymore, and there were hardly any fish in the drying puddles. From then on, he talked to different fishermen and collected five local species of fish and shrimps that used to be found in this stream. And in July this year, he was releasing them.
When we are all fighting for the river water, these two former shikaris were innocently doing their bit, even if only to transfer an experience to their children. If this small action spreads as a movement among the residents across the Western Ghats, and blooms as a culture in the hundreds of thousands of streams originating there, that might help... we hope.
Krupakar and Senani are renowned wildlife photographers and film-makers from Karnataka