When Dencin Rons Thampy, an independent field researcher working with Mahseer Trust, a UK-based charity set up to conserve the species, began working in the Wayanad region, he realised something. Every time someone from the local Mullu Kuruma community caught a humpback mahseer — a massive fish endemic to the Cauvery River basin — they released it back into the water. Velimeen, as the community calls it, is believed to be a sacred fish, the eating of which is believed to cause misfortune, says Thampy. “If they catch a large fish that croaks, they believe that the fish is begging to be released into the river,” adds Thampy, who constantly engages with communities in the region as part of his research.
On 23 August, Mahseer Trust released a cartoon, which focuses on this practice. “The idea was to showcase this story via a character called Ikkiri, a Mullu Kuruma fisherman,” says cartoonist Ramya Sriram, creator of The Tap, an award-winning comic strip, who is behind this cartoon. The comic itself is minimalist and simple, composed of clean drawings, stick figures and the occasional daub of colour that “work a universal visual language,” says Sriram, adding that it was created digitally using a Wacom tablet. “We made sure that we recreated the temple/forest/river scenes from available artwork and from feedback given to Dencin by the locals,” adds Sriram.
It captures a day in the life of Ikkiri, who first catches several small fish using a cast net that he can sell to the Adiya community and then goes to a place in the forest (where the river flows strongly), where he knows he's likely to catch a big fish for his own family. “There he captures a humpback mahseer which 'speaks' to him,” says Sriram, who is deeply passionate about wildlife conservation. “Despite his hunger, he returns it to the river as he believes it is a form of god.”
The tiger of the river
The humpback mahseer or Tor remadevii, one of the several species of mahseers that live in Indian rivers, belongs to the Carp family. An iconic game fish that anglers worldwide have aspired to catch, it is now struggling to survive and is currently ‘critically endangered’ on the IUCN Red List. Since it is a fish that is generally near the top of the food web, it performs a similar ecological function to tigers in a forest: as an apex predator, says Steve Lockett, executive director, Mahseer Trust. However, he adds that the fish, which is especially vulnerable to loss of quality habitat, can also be seen as an indicator species to show that the river is healthy. “If the hump-backed mahseer is thriving, so too will multiple other freshwater species,” says Lockett. Habitat pressure is one of the biggest causes for the decline of the species, but it also faces threats due to invasive species and destructive fishing practices.
Raising awareness about this fish, therefore, is key to preserving it. It is why the Mahseer Trust has been engaging so closely with the local communities in the region. “Indigenous communities live within the constraints of local ecological support systems,” says Lockett.“They do not take more than a river or forest can provide, and they ensure that they never take beyond what they know would be a tipping point towards extinction."
He adds that it is time that people from within these communities present themselves in public about the importance of maintaining their way of life and how and why they cherish natural spaces. The comic, in many ways, captures this narrative. “Through art, we can reach a wider audience and, very importantly, we can present ideas, thoughts, dreams if you like, about the importance of natural spaces and wildlife, in ways that science cannot easily convey,” he says. Sriram agrees. “I think art is a powerful tool in changing beliefs and mindsets,” she says, adding that it speaks on a very raw, human level. “It can evoke empathy, prompt people to sit up and take notice, and eventually inspire action.”