Cultural and religious traditions influence the protection of wild species. However, certain practices may not benefit the species though they seem to fetch handsome returns for the humans who propitiate the Gods named after the species! A few kilometres from Jogindernagar (Himachal Pradesh) is situated the Machhendra Devta (Fish God) temple at Machhial along a tributary of the Beas, the Ranna Khad stream. The Golden mahseer are found in great abundance here. According to local belief, Lord Vishnu is incarnated from the mahseer and the legend goes that if a person’s wish is fulfilled, then a gold nasal ring is to be put around the operculum of the mahseer and the fish released back into the stream.
Local fishermen with cast nets would oblige pilgrims by catching mahseer. However, once the pilgrim’s back was turned, the fishermen would strive to catch the ‘gold’ mahseer so that they could pocket the rings. Fortunately, with increasing awareness, the ring custom has declined. However, people continue to feed fish with ‘atta’ balls (wheat flour) and bread. Since mahseer feed on aquatic vegetation and animal matter, their digestive systems are not suited for starchy foods as these attract bacteria and cause dysentery, besides fungal diseases. “The ring custom would injure the mahseer. Though the mahseer eat ‘atta’ thrown by pilgrims, this is not a choice food for fish. Since the stream is running water, the negative effects of the food thrown are diluted. However, at the sacred Rewalsar lake (Mandi district), where water stagnates, pilgrims excessively feed Common carps leading to annual mortality of fish. Religious sentiments prevail in such situations,” Dr Gurcharan Singh Bansal, director-cum-warden of fisheries, told this writer.
On the positive side, the stream comprises a mahseer sanctuary protected by local custom. Such protection is better insurance for mahseer than armed wildlife department guards! Droves of darting, thrashing mahseer lend a golden hue to the crystalline, mountain waters of Ranna Khad. It is nature’s way of offering gold to Machhendra Devta. But will the prayers of mahseer be fulfilled? That an era dawns when pilgrims embrace modern knowledge, offer nothing to the mahseer but protect their waters, and yet remain secure in the belief of their traditions and the worship of their Gods.
NATURAL BY DESIGN
As much as charismatic species such as tigers are adored by visitors to zoos, serpents do not lag far behind in the fascination index. The challenge is to maintain reptile health and yet facilitate quality viewership. The Chhatbir Zoo is developing a Reptile House under the guidance of award-winning conservationist, Nikhil Sanger, and three of its eight chambers are complete and displaying Rock pythons and Rat snakes. On this scale, Chhatbir’s emerging House is the northern-most for zoos in India and requires extra-vigilance from the dry, icy cold conditions. Oil-filled heaters that do not affect humidity coupled with open-top roofs that let in sunlight and ultra-violet rays insulate reptiles from winter’s cut-to-the-bone incursion.
The chambers have been enriched with murals painted by Sanger to create a “natural ambience” for reptiles. This is in tune with the modern precept of zoological parks that seeks to finely balance viewership with the species’ innate preferences. For example, Rat snakes have been provisioned with a sturdy natural vine that they climb to reach the open-top roof and sun themselves while broad-leaf litter on some floors provisions warmth and camouflage. All in all, Chhatbir’s emerging House is far removed from the dreary, dark and morbid ambience so typical of reptile enclosures.
“If reptiles are comfortable, viewer satisfaction is enhanced. As the chambers are being designed, we keep learning from mistakes that crop up and undertake course correction. We did away with erecting tall branches in the Spectacled cobra’s chamber because our zoo keepers were not comfortable with a cobra over their heads! The chambers cannot be too fancy for they must sustain --- in the long run --- maintenance ease and reptile health,” field director Manish Kumar told this writer.
The next time you see an extravagant photograph of a bird flying, do pause. It may be a contrived photograph arising from the bird being deliberately disturbed. Naturalist and ecological tour operator, Vipul Ramanuj, came across this scene from the Nava Talav lake in Gujarat’s Little Rann of Kutchh on December 19 where photographers armed with expensive equipment were clicking flying birds. This was facilitated by the driver of their jeep (without a registration number), who was throwing stones at sitting birds to provoke them to fly off.