It is late May and it has been raining continuously for the last three days. The beels and ponds of Orang National Park in Assam are filling up again. Monsoon is here and so is the season to make some extra bucks, Jalaluddin thought to himself. He has already discussed this with a few local fishermen of the fringe villages of the Park. If they can catch the “Pipli Cheng” fish for him, he has promised to reward them handsomely. The buyer in Guwahati has promised him Rs 35,000 for a single “Pipli Cheng” fish. Even if he has to pay Rs 10,000 for a single fish to the fisherman, he can still make a decent profit, Jalaluddin knows.
“Pipli Cheng” or “Cheng Garaka” is the local name for the Channa barca or the Barca snakehead fish, a rare species of snakehead endemic to the upper Brahmaputra river basin in India’s Noth East and Bangladesh. It was first described by the Scottish physician Francis Hamilton in 1822 who made significant contributions as a zoologist among other disciplines while living in India. He has described it as Ophiocephalus barca (now Channa) first seen in the Brahmaputra river near Golpara in Assam.
In the present times, it is mainly found in and around the Orang National Park located on the northern bank of the Brahmaputra river. It is now a rare ornamental fish and never collected in numbers.
“It is found in the Brahmaputra basin which, because of being a flood-prone area, suits its typical habitat,” said Sushil Kumar Sarmah, Associate Professor, Zoology Department, Guwahati City College, Assam. “It is an ornamental species of fish and found in parts of Assam where there is a confluence of a wetland and the Brahmaputra river or one of its tributaries. It is also reported to be found in some parts of Bhutan and Arunachal Pradesh. It is a highly threatened species and at any moment, it might completely disappear.”
The fish takes refuge in vertical burrows or holes along the peripheries of wetlands that usually dry up during the winter. These metre-deep burrows typically lead to a bigger chamber with a groundwater table that rises up during the monsoon season leading to the fish emerging to hunt and breed. The monsoon season is also when it gets hunted by poachers.
High ornamental value
This snakehead fish is attractive to look at and has high ornamental value amongst specialist aquarists, in national and international markets. Since it is rarely available and restricted to only a particular region of the Brahmaputra basin, it has become extremely expensive over the years and now counted as one of the most expensive fish in the world. Overall, it has been assessed as data deficient by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and in 2014 it was assessed by the body as critically endangered due to habitat loss in Bangladesh.
In August 2017, eight numbers of this species were caught being smuggled near the Orang National Park. The smuggler was planning to supply the ornamental fish to Kolkata. The following month, five more of this species were seized near Orang National Park.
In October 2019, two persons were caught red-handed by the local Dalgaon police station of Orang National Park when they were trying to smuggle a Channa barca fish to Guwahati. According to reports, they were planning to sell it in Guwahati at four times the price. These two people seemed to be, what are commonly called, the “middlemen”.
In August 2019, a poacher – commonly called the “catcher” – was caught with a Channa barca fish by forest guards inside the Park.
A trader who is involved in the aquarium fish trade in Guwahati but refused to identify himself stated that the fish is smuggled to Kolkata via Guwahati from where it is exported to various countries.
“At the ground level, the catchers do not get much money but as soon as a middleman gets involved, it becomes costlier by the time it reaches Guwahati and the price of a single fish shoots up,” he said. “When it reaches countries like China, the price goes up even further.”
Orang National Park is one of the oldest game reserves of the state (1915) and according to many, it was home to the Orang tribe before they left this place after a fatal disease spread in the region.
“Orang National Park stands on the north bank of the River Brahmaputra and has extensive connectivity with Kaziranga, Nameri, Burachapori through a riverine landscape called Kaziranga-Orang riverine landscape,” said Dipankar Lahkar, Manager, Tiger Research and Conservation Division-Aaranyak, who has extensive knowledge about the region.
“Kaziranga-Orang riverine landscape provides biological permeability to the Orang National Park with the floodplains of the Kaziranga landscape and on the north-west, two riverine corridors, Dhansiri and Pachnoi rivers, connected to forest complexes of the Transboundary Manas Conservation Area on the Indo-Bhutan border,” Lahkar added.
“About 8%-10% of the area of Orang National Park is covered by water bodies that include 12 wetlands and 26 man-made ponds,” he further added.
These wetlands, ponds and the rivers with the Brahmaputra flowing close by having evolved into an ecosystem that is home to various rare, ornamental species of fish like the Channa barca.
The problem lies in the fact that there are still no proper laws or initiatives by the government to recognise this rare species of fish and protect it from smuggling.
“Since it is a rare ornamental fish, it is in high demand in the international market,” said Pradipta Baruah, Divisional Forest Officer Mangaldoi, where Orang is located. “But the biggest problem is that it is still not included under the Schedule Part-II A (Fishes) of the Wild Life Protection Act, 1972. If they can somehow manage to smuggle out the fish from the National Park then they can easily mix it with other normal fishes as it does not come under any Act. It is like transporting any other normal fish.”
As soon as the rainy season begins, beels and ponds of Orang National Park are filled up with water and people from the fringe areas of the Park try to secretly sneak in and catch this fish in the hope of making some easy money. Some of them are apprehended but many manage to catch the fish and smuggle it out.
“So, by patrolling, we try to ensure that the smugglers do not get to enter the Park,” he added. “Some electronic devices have also been put up at strategic places to curb the entry of poachers. Still some miscreants manage to sneak in sometimes. Our intelligence network is there and the police also cooperate. We have also managed to nab some and recently three poachers were arrested.”
There have been multiple allegations by locals and local organisations that some forest officials/guards were involved in the smuggling of this rare fish from the Orang National Park. Local newspapers in vernacular language ran multiple news reports in which it has been alleged that at least a section of the forest guards were involved in poaching activities.
“Some forest officials/guards were definitely involved and they had allowed this rare fish to be caught and smuggled out of the Park,” said Abdul Aziz, secretary of Dalgaon Vanya-Prani Suraksha Samiti, a local wildlife protection NGO of Orang National Park. “But these forest people were, of late, transferred from the particular area where this was happening and hopefully now this will stop. But then again, this happens in the monsoon season, now is not the time.”
This has been denied by the forest department time and again.
“This is not so true,” clarified the Divisional Forest Officer. “We will get to know if they are involved. It is also true that sometimes if patrolling is not done properly then some people take a chance of it.”
“I have filed a request to include the particular fish under the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972 as a scheduled animal,” the DFO Baruah said. “The State Wildlife Board had recommended earlier to include it as a scheduled animal. We have accordingly proposed this to the government but this cannot be done by the state government, the central government has to do it. It is under due process.”
On the other hand, zoologists like Sarmah have argued that if the government wants to exploit the commercial value of the ornamental fish endemic to the region then it should be done in a proper way through captive breeding and monoculture.
“We had conducted a feasibility study of ornamental fish trade where we had clearly mentioned that these ornamental fish species endemic to the region should never be exported without captive breeding even if there is a huge demand internationally,” said Sarmah.
“If threatened species are exported without captive breeding or mass propagation then they will soon cease to exist in the region,” he added. “A proper and strict checking system should be put in place in exit points like the airport and the railway stations so that these highly threatened fish species cannot be smuggled out.”
“Monoculture should also be done if captive breeding is done at all, so that the female of the species is not exported out and so that the ornamental and endemic status of the species is not compromised,” Sarmah stressed.
This article first appeared on Mongabay.