Fishing camps along the Cauvery have helped safeguard the habitat of the mahseer. Also, most of the poachers have been rehabilitated and are employed as guides and guards to patrol the river stretch at the fishing camps, reports Susheela Nair
Hurtling from the high mountains of the Brahmagiri range in Kodagu district, the bountiful Cauvery river flows across Karnataka, snaking through forested hilly tracts and agricultural fields. Some stretches of the omnipresent Cauvery between the Shivanasamudram waterfalls and Mekedatu, shelter the giant mahseer, the legendary sport fish of India. On the banks of this stretch of the river are three fishing camps Doddamakali, six km upstream, and Galibore, 16 km downstream of Bheemeshwari and all run by the state-owned Jungle Lodges and Resorts Ltd (JLR). These camps are all within a few hours drive from Bangalore. Anglers from all over the world make their annual pilgrimage to these exclusively reserved stretches to pit their wits against the mahseer while non-anglers revel in nature’s bounty.
Angling history can be traced back to the pre-independent days when the British used to ‘catch-and-kill’ the mahseer. With the construction of dams in the adjoining areas, the migration of the fish was restricted and even blocked in some places.
This contributed to the decline of the mahseer population. Moreover the villagers, mostly settlers indulged in netting, poisoning and using ordinary detonator with safety fuse thus destroying all aquatic life forms including fish fingerlings.
Explains Arun Srinivasan, President, WASI, “Realising the need to safeguard the habitat of the mahseer fish and the adjoining riverine stretches of forest, Wildlife Association of South India (WASI) set up temporary fishing camps in the mid-seventies. For the past thirty years, we have been involved in the protection of this stretch of the Cauvery river.”
“In the light of decreasing sizes and number of good specimens, we adopted the ‘catch-and-release’ practice, thus giving a fresh lease of life to the mighty mahseer. We have been protecting mahseer fishing by adopting conservation, stocking and management measures so as to stem the decline of mahseer population,” the WASI president adds. Subsequently JLR took over the river stretch by setting up a camp at Bheemeshwari in 1984.
The mahseer is the pride and joy of the Cauvery and Asia’s premier sporting fish. It is believed that the name has been formed from the Hindi words maha (great) and sir (head). It could equally have been derived from the Persian mahi (fish) and sher (lion) but either way, the mahseer retains its status as king and the prize catch for all committed anglers.
In local parlance, it is known as bili meen. Catching the mahseer fish is easier said than done. The legendary fighting fish resists all attempts to catch it and there is a virtual tug-of-war between the angler and the fish for about 20-30 minutes. It can grow to over 100 lbs in weight, can easily swim upstream, against rapids, at over 20 knots, a truly spectacular sight amidst splendid scenery.
Every time a fish is caught, a camp attendant helps the angler remove it from the water, tie its mouth with a nylon rope, weigh it and pose for a photograph! And, immediately after, the rope is removed and the fish is let back into the river.
Situated on the banks of the river Cauvery, the Cauvery Fishing Camp (CFC) is an ideal picnic spot for nature enthusiasts, river lovers and a paradise for hardcore anglers. Every year, head guide of a fishing holidays company David Plummer escorts a limited number of anglers to these camps which combine the thrill of hooking one of the world’s finest game fish, the mahseer, with the rugged existence of camp life. The camp activities revolve around the ubiquitous Cauvery river which flows sinuously through the varied terrain of Cauvery Wildlife Sanctuary. Birding, bonfire, coracle rides, camping one the sandy banks of the river, trekking, wildlife safaris, white water rafting and bird watching are all part of the wilderness escapade.
Conservation of the mahseer
According to N D Tiwari, IFS, Managing Director, JLR, “Besides contributing to the tourism coffers, angling tourism supports conservation of the mahseer.
“The setting up of anti-poaching camps along the river has curtailed poaching and helped in protection of the river and the aqua species. The size of the fish has grown over the years from 32 pounds to 106 pounds because of protection. Most of the poachers have been rehabilitated and are employed as gillies (guides) and guards to patrol the river stretch at the fishing camps.” Since they are familiar with every tract of the forests, know every inch of the river, where each eddy and whirlpool lies, where the fish likes to school, they have proved themselves able guides. “We help anglers with our knowledge of the waters as we are experienced fishermen ourselves,” said Bhola, a rehabilitated poacher-turned-river guide at Bheemeshwari.
Lured by the social acceptance, security and steady income and the fact that their future is intimately connected with the well-being of the endangered mahseer and its habitat, they are concerned and involved in the protection.
The Coorg Wildlife Society (CWS), another voluntary organisation engaged in protecting mahseer fishing in the Cauvery (i.e. Valnoor in Coorg district,) with a lease on 28 km of this river has been stocking young mahseer in this stretch since 1993. The CWS protects this stretch of the river, issues fishing licenses, organises sport fishing and maintains fish catch statistics.
According to AJT John Singh, eminent wildlife scientist, “If the grand old giant Tor mussullah still exists, it is only because of the farsighted conservation measures adopted by JLR and NGOs like WASI and CWS with their unique eco-tourism and catch-and-release programmes. This is an excellent model worth emulating throughout the different ranges of different species of mahseer in the country, which would mutually benefit the fish, the habitat and the local people.”
From Deccan Herald