Like the Tiger, Mahseer too have suffered badly in modern South Asia. Their numbers have plummeted as those of human beings have rocketed in the subcontinent. The construction of dams, rampant pollution of rivers and unabated hunting for food has hit them hard. Particularly hard hit has been the Tor Mahseer (Tor tor). It is a resident of Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Myanmar, and India (North, Central and Northeast regions). The Tor could reach weights of up to 68 kg. Once upon a time, this mighty fish used to form as much 50% of the total fish catch in the Narmada River (one of the biggest rivers of Central India, flowing through the states of Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat).

Now, it forms a meagre 4%. Fish numbers plummeted as government after government in these two states went about constructing dams on the Narmada and its tributaries. The Tor Mahseer is said to thrive in fresh, cold waters. The construction of dams blocked the flow of the Narmada’s waters, and formed vast reservoirs that were unsuitable for the species. Its food sources and breeding grounds were destroyed. Not only did the numbers of the species plummet; so did the size of the survivors. Today’s Tor Mahseer weigh in at 1 kg, a pathetic fraction of their super-sized ancestors.

The state of Madhya Pradesh through which the Narmada (and other rivers like the Ken, Betwa, Chambal and Tapi that harbour the Tor Mahseer) flows declared it the State Fish in 2011. With the prospect of the fish’s imminent extinction looming over it, Madhya Pradesh’s government undertook a number of steps to check the decline. The Forest Department mapped sites of surviving populations using GIS (Geographic Information System) and prepared an atlas. An artificial breeding program was launched. Attempts were made to educate the region’s fishing communities about the threatened status of the species. While the steps are commendable, it might already be too late for the fish. Especially, when the primary reason for their decline, India’s big dams, continue to be favored by the country’s bureaucracy.

Image Attribution: The image above is sourced from Wikimedia Commons and shows a Mahseer from Dutch ichthyologist Pieter Bleeker’s ‘Memoire sur les Poissons de la Cote de Guinee’. Posted as a medical officer of the Royal Netherlands East Indies Army in Indonesia (1842-1860), he collected specimens from local fishermen. After his return to the Netherlands he published his monumental Atlas Ichthyologique des Indes Orientales Néerlandaises, featuring over 1,500 illustrations in 36 volumes. This particular image is preserved in the University of Washington’s Freshwater and Marine Image Bank, a digital collection of images related to freshwater and marine fauna. It includes images of fish, shellfish, and marine mammals, pictures of fish hatcheries and dams and vessels, materials related to polar exploration, regional and traditional fisheries, and limnological (freshwater) subjects.