Her work in spatial ecology and conservation of Mahseer fish with the Jenu Kuruba, a forest-dwelling tribe in the Western Ghats has earned her immense appreciation, and even recognition as a ‘Conservation Hero’.
Our newest member, Neethi Mahesh, now a Conservation Consultant at WCS-India, sheds light on her relentless work in riparian conservation in the Coorg District, the biggest threats faced by Mahseer fish, her experience working with communities in the region to secure their livelihoods, and what she hopes to achieve in her time here.
Why did you choose the Mahseer fish as the subject of your research? What is its ecological and socio-cultural significance in the Coorg region?
The iconic Mahseer, are medium to large bodied freshwater fish widely distributed in Indian rivers. Belonging to the genus Tor, each species is restricted to a major geographical region in India. Three of the five species listed as endangered in the IUCN Red List of Threatened species are known to be found in the river Cauvery, where the species are protected through two fish sanctuaries and protected areas. Moreover, the Mahseer fish acts as an indicator of ecosystem health because it is essentially a rheophilic species that inhabits hill streams and rivers with rocky and stony substrate. Its prime requirement being pristine natural waters, Mahseer is a sensitive species that can barely tolerate a modified water environment.
The spatial ecology study with Mahseer was carefully drawn out, as they are migratory in nature. An understanding of their movement patterns and spatial requirement is important, if we are to conserve the species and its riverine environment. Karnataka has a provision under the ‘Inland Fisheries Act, 2003’ for the ‘Declaration of Sanctuary’, with 21 fish sanctuaries identified across the state. There are numerous religious temple sanctuaries dedicated to conserving Mahseer in Karnataka. This however does not guarantee protection extending temple premises, where the area under the sanctuary is smaller in size compared to protected areas such as Reserve Forests or Wildlife Sanctuaries. Their migratory nature puts them under direct threat from destructive fishing practices and anthropogenic stressors, in both the upstream and downstream environment. The study aims to provide guidelines to strengthen the provision under this Act, utilizing radio telemetry as a tool to evaluate spatial requirements. Further to providing baseline information to demarcate sanctuaries in Karnataka, the project has the potential to aid with guidelines for fish sanctuaries in other rivers, where they are known to be found.
We are collectively at a very critical stage in drawing up conservation measures for rivers and their protection, due to immense pressures from development projects. Science based evidence has the potential to include Mahseer in the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) for dams; The lack of information on natural history and spatial ecology of species makes it difficult to conduct threat assessments and to develop management strategies to address challenges such as dams for hydropower, drinking water or irrigation purposes. The impact on Mahseer with regard to dam projects lacks scientific data. Mahseer have been included in cumulative impact assessments carried out for hydropower projects, where the mean depth for minimum flow requirement during some of these assessments has been stated and considered to be 30 cm to 50 cm. This however, has no scientific basis and is falsely used to obtain clearance for hydropower projects in Himalayan river systems. Habitat assessments coupled with findings from the telemetry study can provide the necessary information to carry out sound and informed EIAs' using Mahseer as one of the primary aquatic indicators in the Western Ghats.
The question then arises on where we can find healthy populations of Mahseer, which enable long term research and studies. While fish in temple pools are revered in the religious context, eliminating fishing pressures, freshwater fish are not factored in the Indian Wildlife Protection Act (1972). However, the means by which fish are caught comes under the purview of the Act, offering them indirect protection. The legal framework attached with protected areas, continue to face challenges by riparian communities, dependent on fish as a source of protein, especially with large species such as Mahseer, which are commonly targeted through destructive fishing practices, leading to overfishing.
Coorg Wildlife Society (CWS), in Coorg District have been protecting Mahseer and thereby other aquatic species along the Cauvery, primarily as a community driven effort in collaboration with the Karnataka Fisheries Department, through a conservation lease. The native Cauvery Tor remadevii species and its sheer size, an indicator of a healthy ecosystem, was reason enough for the community to identify the need to commit towards Mahseer conservation. The leased stretch flows through Dubare and Maldare Reserved Forest on one bank and the agro- forest zone on the other, where CWS have been practicing recreational- C&R, with paid fishing licenses to fund and enable monitoring and protection of the river stretch. This self sustainable model enables the community to employ angling guides or river watchers, who patrol the river and has helped curb overfishing and destructive fishing practices, allowing Mahseer and other fish species to flourish, providing a stable habitat for other vulnerable species such as the Smooth Coated Otter (Lutrogale perspicillata) and numerous other flora and fauna.
What are the biggest challenges in the conservation of riparian habitats today? Have they been left out of the conservation conversation?
Riparian habitats are essentially buffer zones between the land and water interface which include a variety of flora such as trees, shrubs and grasses, along with substrate matter such as sediment, sand, gravel and rocks, which support aquatic and terrestrial fauna. These habitats provide numerous ecosystem services, maintaining a delicate balance for river ecosystems and are integral to the ecology of rivers at large, making them extremely sensitive and vulnerable.
Due to their proximity to water, immense pressure from anthropogenic factors have reduced and altered riparian habitats, or are non-existent with key drivers of loss, such as land use change and river bank modification. While riparian rights exist for citizens of India, a legal framework can be legitimized to safeguard riparian habitats with vegetation, offering guidelines that restrict encroachment and removal of riparian vegetation.
To add to the existing anthropological stressors, there are near and looming threats in the form of river interlinking, inland waterway schemes and dam proposals, which are detrimental to riparian ecosystems and communities dependent on the river. The very essence of river ecosystems as living, breathing entities, are at risk in the unwavering march towards unsustainable development.
It can’t be ignored that the impacts are no longer limited to ecological disturbance and disruption— it is a social crisis, with far reaching consequences affecting riparian communities and livelihoods, due to calamities caused from flooding. The new trend in high intensity rainfall events over a short duration of time during the monsoon has led to widespread destruction along rivers, in addition to devastation caused by release of flood waters from dams. A healthy riparian gallery forest or buffer zone, essentially slows down and diverts flood water downstream. Hence our focus moving forward should be to conserve and restore riparian habitats to protect riverine ecosystems and help build flood resilience for vulnerable rural riparian communities.
While many small scale riparian restoration efforts are mushrooming across the country, concerted efforts utilizing indigenous knowledge, with surveys and existing data corroborated by robust scientific guidelines can be adopted to further support ongoing initiatives. One of the most common challenging obstacles is the disconnect between civil society groups and researchers or scientists, to enable informed and scientifically sound restoration efforts as opposed to mass tree planting drives or popular campaigns. While the intention is unquestionably good, it requires focused efforts on making information citizen friendly and easily accessible, thereby empowering citizens with knowledge that will aid in conservation efforts, rather than create new challenges.
The big conversation at present is focused on large scale forestry interventions for 13 of India’s major rivers. Forestry intervention is part of the river rejuvenation scheme announced by the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEF&CC), following the Ganga Rejuvenation model, under the National Mission for Clean Ganga. Detailed project reports (DPR) have since been drafted for the Cauvery and Krishna basin in South India, recommending a riparian buffer zone width for both rivers and their tributaries, restricting developmental activities. The DPR reiterates recommendations from the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel’s report for riparian zones and it is yet to be seen if the recommendations will be incorporated, or neglected, as done earlier. The big question is will the DPR invariably lead to conflict of interests and a matter of judicial contention, challenging unsustainable developmental goals, to protect our rivers. These are indeed challenging and interesting times, where people can work together for the common good.
Tell us about the platform ‘Our River, Our Life’. How has citizen engagement driven conservation of riverine habitats in the Western Ghats?
Our River, Our Life was conceptualized as an education and outreach tool to help connect citizens to their riverine environment, by engaging them in activities that facilitate a better understanding of anthropogenic factors, affecting river ecosystems. The initiative at present is dedicated to creating a citizen science platform for stream, river and lake monitoring efforts, thus facilitating a voice for citizens by means of water quality testing, landscape monitoring and observations on flora and fauna, along with visual media documentation. The goal is to provide seamless data and information sharing, with geospatial data to give it perspective and focus, bringing freshwater ecosystems the much needed attention that is required.
A wide array of approaches can be applied to stream and river monitoring, but more often various factors contributing to river health are intertwined with each other. This approach takes into consideration a broad spectrum of activities one can engage in, contributing to research and monitoring efforts, which can lead to location specific solutions which are more practical in nature. The philosophy and science of it emphasises on learning together, to better understand and respect the lifelines that support our very existence, through physical, chemical, biological and socio- ecological elements, that make up our riverscapes.
Indigenous knowledge, such as the availability of fish species, for instance, and how to catch them, has instant power in connecting people to what they value about river resources. The sightings of otters, crocodiles, seasonal and migratory bird species can also tell us how healthy the river ecosystem is. Delving deeper into the process, monitoring water quality can help identify sources of pollution and additionally aid with creating a network of individuals and groups keeping track of waterways at regular intervals, along its course. This broadens the scope of public involvement, providing a democratic platform to showcase concerns and meet challenges, which are otherwise difficult to address at a river basin scale.
The genesis of citizen engagement and environmental movements in Coorg is embedded in the identity of indigenous communities, whose livelihoods are closely linked to the ecology of the district. Given its geographical distinction as a biodiversity hotspot and the source of the Cauvery river, the threats faced by Coorg and its ecology are innumerable. This has given rise to leadership spanning from environmentalists, NGOs and various civil society groups, who have pledged to take action against a wide spectrum of threats such as land conversion for commercial development, illegal encroachments, solid waste management, unsustainable tourism and larger development agendas sanctioned by the government, which do not incorporate environmental concerns. Furthermore, the district has been experiencing widespread devastation during the monsoon, with landslides and flooding which has strengthened environmentalism, making it everybody’s business.
Environmentalism in the district has taken up various forms, evolving over a period of time from community outreach and agitations, to advocacy in consultation with scientists and experts in the field. A combination of all of the above has also helped put pressure on project proponents. Some of the monumental movements to highlight are against the Mysore- Kozhikode 400 KV ‘High Tension Power Line’ which was sanctioned, felling over 54,000 trees, despite the long and tireless battle fought from within the district. The more recent struggle has been against linear projects sanctioned by the government with two railway lines, Thalassery- Kutta- Mysore and Mysore- Kushalnagar- Madikeri- Mangalore, which don’t have wildlife or forest clearances. A PIL filed by Col. (Retd) C.P. Muthanna, former President of Coorg Wildlife Society, helped bring in a court directive to stop the projects without clearances. There have also been several appeals against highway expansion and road widening, which will only add more pressure on the fragile district.
You have also worked with students in schools and colleges as part of this program. Why is it essential to involve them, and in what capacity? How do you see them taking forward the mantle of conservation in their communities?
Coorg district has seen colossal transformation over the past two decades, in the form of land-use change, growing agro trade, tourism and other development activities that are impacting the landscape at an accelerated rate. The transformation of the landscape is more stark, with native species being replaced by monoculture silver oak plantations, which has become the new practice to tackle a crash in coffee prices, increasing pressure on coffee growers and small scale farmers alike to adopt less ecologically sustainable options or shift from preservation of old traditional methods of sustainable agroforestry.
A qualitative survey carried out during school visits is a testament to such transformations where children when asked to share names of tree species, list non-native commercial tree species with economic values. Very few children have the opportunity to visit the river often and are disconnected from river ecology. They can, however, relate to the river as a divine being, passed down from their culture. The lack of physical connection to the river therefore can be addressed by periodic visits to the river, where they get to spend time engaging in activities and observing their surroundings, helping stimulate environmental and ecological consciousness. There is a need to address this shifting baseline syndrome or environmental generational amnesia, as Peter Kahn, professor of psychology at the University of Washington, says— each generation can only recognise and appreciate the ecological changes they experience.
Interactions and engagement with college students, furthermore, by directly involving them in restoration efforts, makes them cognizant of the role they stand to play as guardians of the river; empowering and equipping students and teachers alike to take location specific action, with the Cauvery river as a common lifeline.
You’ve been awarded a Conservation Hero Grant by The Habitats Trust in the past. What does being a ‘conservation hero’ mean to you? What is your personal philosophy when it comes to conservation?
It was a real honor and a humbling experience to be recognized and acknowledged as an individual. Most importantly, I considered it a gesture of support for people working in ecology and conservation. We have to acknowledge that it is one of the most challenging fields with a multitude of factors at play, most of them unpredictable. Unpredictability becomes a way of life, with which we cope and adapt to ensure we’re doing the best we can to research, document, build relationships with stakeholders, communicate and work towards a plan, with the hope of making the smallest of differences towards our focus of work. I firmly believe that every individual or organization working for conservation of species, ecosystems or landscapes are all ‘conservation heros’, because all conservation issues we are faced with are important and inextricably linked together.
Finally, we are very excited to have you on board! What goals do you hope to achieve with WCS-India?
Thank you for the warm welcome! I am truly excited to join WCS- India and look forward to reaching some milestones with riparian habitat restoration and conservation work. To begin with, the work envisages collation of baseline information to create a database of riparian flora, specific to geographical areas. Our goal would be to help bridge the knowledge gap and build partnerships with local communities and other stakeholders by disseminating restoration guidelines, if we are to influence a change of perception tied with tree planting drives. It is also critical for us to engage with the Karnataka Forest Department, for the upcoming forestry intervention initiative, linked to Cauvery Rejuvenation.