Mayawati And Other River Monsters – In Search Of Gharials In The Ken River
India appears to have lost its love of rivers, write Tarun Nair and Suyash Katdare, two researchers whose mission it is to somehow keep rivers free-flowing and hospitable for one of the most endangered crocodiles in the world, the gharial.
Photo: Tarun Nair.
The dry, deciduous landscape of Bundelkhand treated us to its summer splendour, with the sweet smell of mahua and palash (flame of the forest), flowers in full bloom. While the summer exposed our frailties through occasional bouts of dehydration and exhaustion, the cool crisp air under the warm winter sun provided welcome change. But come sundown, we fought to keep warm and dry through the wet, winter nights under a leaky plastic sheet and an open sky. And despite expletive-laden mumblings, our physical travails stirred up strange camaraderie in the camp.
Our search for gharials Gavialis gangeticus in the Yamuna-Ganga drainage took us to central India’s Ken River, whose lower 260 km. we surveyed in the summer and winter of 2013.
The Ken rises on the northwestern slopes of the Kaimur hills in Madhya Pradesh, and joins the Yamuna in Uttar Pradesh some 430 km. later. En route, it cuts through the Bijawar-Panna hills, and its valley separates the plateaus of Rewa and Satna. Two Protected Areas (PAs) lie along its lower reach – the Panna Tiger Reserve and the Ken Gharial Wildlife Sanctuary. It isn’t without reason that this is called the ‘Emerald Forest’ and the Ken winding its way through the escarpments of Panna only enhances that compliment. While species like the Gyps vultures, Grey-headed Fish-eagles, Black Storks, marsh crocodiles (mugger) and mahseer appear to be doing reasonably well within these PAs, the gharial has been less fortunate; this despite the release of almost 150 captive-reared individuals over a quarter of a century. The river is largely rocky here, and two critical components of suitable gharial habitat - deep pools and high sand deposits – are not found in unison. The diminutive Ken Gharial Sanctuary is therefore, really a misnomer. While its name suggests favourable habitat and a resident gharial population, reality is different.
Our summer survey came to nought, partly on account of the weather, and we therefore returned later that winter in the hope of better fortune.
Travelling upriver from the Ken-Yamuna confluence, we chanced upon a few nilgai, a flock of Sarus Cranes and then, finally, going around a bend, we spotted our first gharial, a hatchling basking in the evening sun. This was not far from the confluence where we had observed eight youngsters the previous year, and it raised our hopes of finding more gharials in the Ken, perhaps even a breeding population.
Photo: Suyash Katdare.
FEMME OR FISH?
Native to Central and South America, Parthenium hysterophorus is considered a noxious, invasive weed in India. Its popular moniker ‘Congress grass’ refers to the plants’ introduction in the country through wheat imports by the-then Congress government at the Centre. Just as the Congress party, unwittingly, contributed to the colloquial nomenclature of invasive species in India, the leader of the Bahujan Samaj Party and former Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, Mayawati Kumari, finds similar favour among fisherfolk along the Ken who have chosen to christen the invasive tilapia (Oreochromis niloticus and O. mossambicus) after her. An apparent allusion to her narcissistic and pervasive ways, exemplified by her many self-commissioned memorials and statues.
Tilapias are tropical, mainly freshwater, cichlid fish, native to Africa and parts of the Middle East. They were transported worldwide in the early part of the 20th Century for the biological control of aquatic weeds and insects, the aquarium trade, as bait fish and for aquaculture. Through intentional and accidental introductions of tilapia into aquatic ecosystems outside their natural distribution, these fish have established themselves across the world, including India. Their simple food requirements, tolerance to different environmental conditions, rapid growth, high reproductive rates and aggressive disposition have allowed them to colonise new areas, often at the expense of native fish populations. Once established, tilapia are nearly impossible to eradicate; earning them a spot in the top 100 of the world’s worst introduced species in the Global Invasive Species Database. The fishers also reported an invasive carp that they simply called ‘China’. Unsurprisingly, invasive fish now constitute the predominant catch in many parts of the Yamuna.
While Mayawati is plain-speak in the region’s piscine parlance, we couldn’t quite comprehend this coinage until one fisherman laughingly remarked, “uski jaisi sab kuch kha jati hai” (devours everything like she does), hinting at allegations of huge personal wealth accumulated when she was in power. Femme or fish, Mayawati was clearly loathed here. Nevertheless, this sobriquet was often a useful icebreaker to begin conversing with the many fishers we met, and how better than to start with a good laugh!
Photo: Suyash Katdare.
NOT A GHARIAL HAVEN?
While setting up camp one evening, a curious fisherman approached us somewhat hesitantly. After the customary pleasantries, we settled down for a cup of tea and got talking about the local weather, crime and politics. We eventually broached the subject of the river, its fish and other wildlife, when at the mere mention of ‘crocodile’ he began gesturing animatedly and described seeing an animal basking occasionally in the vicinity over the last five to six years. What piqued our interest most was his description of a long snout with a ‘tumba’ at its end. We showed him a few photographs and he picked the adult male gharial without hesitation. It was called ‘chonchiyaar’ locally, with obvious reference to its long, beak-like snout. Only a couple more fishers believed that gharials were resident here, but their assertions were suspect; embellished with savage depictions and outlandish claims that the ‘chonchiyaar’ lived in an underwater cave year round, emerging only in the floods.
But the strangest responses were reserved for photographs of smooth-coated otters that we showed around. While many people understandably confused them for mongooses, others, identifying them as fish, bear, tiger and even dinosaurs, provided comic relief! One fisherman, who identified them correctly, asserted that otter packs were in the habit of hounding people by scratching and tickling them. Such ripe imaginations may be a sign that gharials and otters are either very rare, or exist here more in legend than in flesh. Barely two or three people claimed to have seen these animals within the last year or two. For most, they are a distant memory from at least a decade earlier. This was not unexpected after what we saw and heard along the course of the river. Though the lower Ken resembled suitable gharial habitat, the intensity of fishing, sand mining and sheer hostility outside the PAs offered little sign of sustaining any gharials, or our hopes.
The fishers, closer to the confluence, who reported finding young gharials entangled in their nets during the monsoonal floods believed that they arrived from someplace upriver in the Yamuna. While some of these gharials were released alive, many succumbed to the nets. A few fishermen admitted to killing and eating gharials; and in another case, a juvenile was captured alive and hauled up to the village, only to be stoned by children who then broke its snout; yet another fisherman described killing a young crocodile while spear-fishing. The fishers, themselves, don’t believe the gharial has much of a chance here. In their words, “They might escape our eyes, but won’t survive the nets.” Even the otters aren’t spared this brutality – we heard accounts of them being captured and taken away by poachers; killed for their pelt and another for the pot; and a case of an otter’s holt being smoked and its two pups killed. In keeping with people’s carnal fascination for animal genitalia, we also got several reports of gharials, muggers and otters being hunted for local aphrodisiacs. In fact, the only mugger burrow we saw in the lower Ken was rigged with a noose-trap right at its entrance, confirming the menace.
Photo: Suyash Katdare.
A ‘BRO-KEN’ RIVER
Strong winds and overcast conditions for a few days in the last week of a frigid December disrupted our surveys, so we used that time to talk to the field staff at Mohareghat. Leafing through his meticulous notes, Ramadin remarked about the last known adult male gharial in the Ken Gharial Wildlife Sanctuary, “He hasn’t been seen here since 2007.” Ramadin Yadav is an old-hand and works as a boatman with the Madhya Pradesh Forest Department. Was this the same animal with the ‘tumba’, we wondered, that the animated fisherman reported seeing around the time that this male went ‘missing’ here?
Even our surveys revealed only a lone surviving adult, reportedly female, in the sanctuary. The biggest challenge for this river specialist arises from the discontinuity in the river brought about by structures like the Gangau Dam, Madla Causeway, Barriarpur Weir and the low-lying bridge immediately downriver of the Ken Gharial Sanctuary near Gumanganj that have not only altered river flows, but also created insurmountable physical barriers. This may, in part, explain the fate of many released gharials; individuals that moved downriver during high water and could no longer return to the relatively safer confines of the PAs.
Looming even larger is the preposterous proposal to link the Ken and Betwa rivers. With recent, very ill-advised approval from the Union Cabinet, the Ken-Betwa link threatens to further fragment the Ken and effectively stop even residual flows in an already water-starved river. The proposed Dhodan Dam, to divert water away from the Ken, is also set to submerge around 60 sq. km. of the beleagured Panna Tiger Reserve. While successive governments continue to repress the landscape, they might as well rename this the ‘Bro-Ken’ river.
Despite the expanding city of Banda releasing its raw sewage flow into it, the Ken is the last big river that provides much-needed freshwater to the highly polluted Yamuna before the latter meets the Ganges at Allahabad. If this government is even remotely committed to reviving the Ganges through its Namami Gange programme, then it would do well to restore the natural flow in the Ken and re-examine the flawed logic of linking the Ken with the Betwa. Until then, this river will remain a watery grave for the gharial; its menacing monsters, merciless.
Photo: Tarun Nair.
Acknowledgments: We were supported by the Gharial Conservation Alliance (MCBT), Zoological Society of San Diego, Rufford Small Grants Foundation, Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund, and Idea Wild during this project across the Betwa, Ken, Tons, Son and Gandak rivers. We thank the Madhya Pradesh Forest Department for permissions and logistical support; Raghu Chundawat, Joanna Van Gruisen and Jaipal Singh for their courtesy and company; and Kishan Kewat and Rajinder Kewat, our boatmen, for tolerating us.
Authors: Tarun Nair and Suyash Katdare, First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXIV No. 6, December 2014.