Wild buzz: Escape from Chandigarh’s Sukhna Lake and the kings of sand castles

Catfish are carnivorous, voracious eaters and like all predators very opportunistic. Opportunistic predators vary their diet according to variation of ecological conditions or presentation of a chance prey.

punjab Updated: Mar 18, 2018 11:49 IST
Wild buzz,wildlife,Chandigarh
Eyes shut, pigeon on verge of being pulled under water by Mullee catfish; (right) escapes after a struggle.(KULBHUSHAN KANWAR)

Many birds are hunters of live fish but a reversal of roles is a fascinating aspect of natural history. On Tuesday, Kulbhushan Kanwar was clicking birds at Sukhna Lake’s regulator end. He was, naturally, least interested in the commoners, ie pigeons attracted by grains people sprinkle on sluice gates. And, just then, as luck would have it, a big, silvery catfish lunged and caught a pigeon flying low over the water. The fish pulled the pigeon down and a life-and-death struggle ensued for just under a minute. Eventually, the pigeon escaped the clutches of fish jaws and Kanwar’s lens captured the rarest of encounters.

Col Pratap Nair (retd) with a Mullee catfish caught near Pune. (Photo: All India Game Fishing Association)

I sought counsel of professor emeritus of fisheries MS Johal and assistant professor YK Rawal. Declaring Kanwar’s photo-documentation a “wonderful and rare capture of a catfish going for a bird,” Rawal added, “Catfish are carnivorous, voracious eaters and like all predators very opportunistic. Opportunistic predators vary their diet according to variation of ecological conditions or presentation of a chance prey. Even some herbivores turn carnivore in a food shortage situation.”

Both experts ruled out the Indian Magur (Clarias batrachus) as the pigeon assailant since the Magur’s mouth is not so big and it is a bottom-water feeder. Johal and Rawal’s assessment was that the pigeon had been caught by a Mullee catfish (Wallago attu), which is a surface feeder and has a wide mouth with clefts extending beyond eyes and formidable jaws armed with two rows of conical teeth. “However, ultimately, even that particular Mullee’s mouth was not big enough to swallow the pigeon and the mismatch resulted in the pigeon’s escape,” explained Johal.

Photo-documented instances of fish preying on birds, include European catfish snapping pigeons while the birds were sitting and drinking water on the shores of Tarn river (France), African tigerfish leaping and catching Barn swallows flying above waters of Schroda dam (South Africa) and the Giant trevally similarly gobbling terns flying low over the Seychelles coast.

Kings of sand castles

Rai Shiv Chand (Photo: Tikka Yashvir Chand)

No one could have foretold in the 20th century that humble river sand and stony soils of the Shivalik foothills would metamorphose to the ‘new oil’ or ‘new heroine’ and overnight build sand castles for influential mafia monarchs. Rai Shiv Chand of Bhallan village in Nangal was a very influential jagirdar, a shikar chieftain and a loyalist of the erstwhile Patiala royalty. Much before Captain Amarinder Singh was elected to the Lok Sabha in 1980, he would tour Bhallan’s jungles for shikars organised by Chand. Accompanying him were his brother, Malvinder Singh, and Vijayendra Singh, the scion of the erstwhile Nalagarh royalty.

Chand recalls that Captain Amarinder would prefer ‘light shooting,’ immensely enjoy the shikar ‘bandobast’ and display skills with the shotgun’s swing as flushed birds flew hard to dodge volleys of lead shot. In the 1980s, Captain Amarinder Singh’s budding son, Raninder Singh ‘Tikoo,’ spent 15 days at Kahnpur Khoohi rest house perched atop a magnificent hill. Tikoo was on an ‘apprenticeship’ learning the skills of shikar from Chand. Captain Amarinder duly rewarded Chand with nominations to the State Wildlife Advisory Board in 1985, 2002 and 2017.

Reflecting his concern at the unprecedented destruction of the Shivaliks in the last 15 years, Chand wrote a personal letter to ‘Respected Maharaja Sahib’ (Captain Amarinder Singh, dated February 26, 2018). The letter paid Captain Amarinder a glowing tribute by stating: “Your love for wildlife and nature is known all over.” Chand’s letter went on to name stone crushers and sand/soil mafia plundering the erstwhile shikar estates, agriculture and ecology. Illegal mining of the Shivaliks and Satluj/Swan riverbeds stretched from the very same Kahnpur Khoohi to Khera Kalmot village. A prominent stone crusher named by Chand enjoyed direct links to the reigning political overlord of the Anandpur Sahib belt. Rattled by the disclosures, strings were pulled and the 86-year-old Chand was unceremoniously sacked from the board on March 7, 2018. The messenger had been shot like a sitting partridge.

However, Chand was undeterred by his fall from favour in the Patiala durbar. He wrote another letter to ministers Navjot Sidhu, Manpreet Badal and Tript Rajinder Bajwa on Tuesday. The letter revealed the annihilation of the entire ecosystem by the ‘black holes’ mining mafia. Farmers were digging tubewells deeper as water levels plunged due to excessive riverbed mining, hills had been flattened and denuded of erosion-proof jungles, and wildlife habitat razed by regiments of JCBs.


First Published: Mar 18, 2018 11:49 IST