Text and photographs by Tarun Nair and Suyash Katdare
The dry, deciduous landscape of Bundelkhand treated us to its summer splendour, with the sweet mahua (Madhuca indica) and flaming palash (Butea monosperma) yielding soothe’ stimuli. But, the cool crisp air under a warm, winter sun held its own charm too. Likewise, our seasonal ailings contrasted from dehydration and exhaustion in summer to fighting to keep warm and dry through the wet, winter nights under a porous plastic sheet and an open sky. Yet, despite mild protestations and expletive-laden mumblings, such discomfort worked in strange ways to stir up unexpected camaraderie in camp. Our search for gharials (Gavialis gangeticus) in the Yamuna-Ganga drainage took us to the Ken River, where we surveyed a major part of its lower 260 km in the summer and winter of 2013.
The Ken rises on the north-western slopes of the Kaimur hills in Madhya Pradesh and joins the Yamuna in Uttar Pradesh about 430 km later. En route, it crosses the Bijawar-Panna hills, and its valley separates the plateaus of Rewa and Satna. Two protected areas (PAs) lie along its lower reach – the Panna Tiger Reserve (PTR) and Ken Gharial Sanctuary (KGS). It isn’t without reason that this is called the emerald forest and the Ken winding its way through the escarpments of Panna only enhances that compliment. While species like the Gyps vultures, grey-headed fish-eagles, black storks, marsh crocodiles (mugger) and mahaseer appear to be doing reasonably well within these PAs, the gharial has been less fortunate in the Ken and its fate offers little cheer; this despite the release of almost 150 captive-reared individuals over a quarter of a century. The river is largely rocky here, with deep pools and high sand deposits, two critical components of suitable gharial habitat, being seldom found in unison. The diminutive Ken Gharial Sanctuary is really a misnomer. While its name suggests favourable habitat and a resident gharial population, reality is far removed.
The Ken River snakes through part of the Panna Tiger Reserve. Its rocky character, combined with disjointed pools and almost no large sand-deposits make it a less than ideal habitat for gharials. However, the escarpments along the river are favoured vulture-nesting sites. (Credit: Suyash Katdare)
Our summer survey came to nought, a result placeable in part on the weather, and so we returned later that winter with the hope of bettering our fortunes. Travelling upriver from the Ken-Yamuna confluence we chanced upon a few nilgai, a flock of Sarus cranes and then finally, going around a bend, we spotted our first gharial, a hatchling basking in the evening sun. This was not very far from the confluence where we had observed 8 youngsters a year earlier, and no doubt raised our hopes of finding more gharials in the Ken, perhaps even a breeding population. This river was intriguing but also threw up tales of invasives, ignorance and intrusions.
Native to Central and South America, Parthenium hysterophorus is considered a noxious, invasive weed in India. Its popular moniker ‘Congress grass‘ refers to the plants’ introduction in the country through wheat imports by the then Congress government at the Centre. Just as the Congress party, unwittingly, contributed to the colloquial nomenclature of invasive species’ in India, the leader of the Bahujan Samaj Party and former Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, Mayawati Kumari, finds similar favour among fisher folk along the Ken who have chosen to christen the invasive tilapia (Oreochromis niloticus and O. mossambicus) after her, an apparent allusion to her narcissistic and pervasive ways; read: her many self-commissioned memorials and statues.
Tilapias are tropical, mainly freshwater, cichlid fish, native to Africa and parts of the Middle East. They were transported worldwide in the early part of the 20th Century for the biological control of aquatic weeds and insects, aquarium trade, as bait fish and for aquaculture. Through intentional and accidental introductions of tilapia into aquatic ecosystems outside their natural distribution, these fish have established themselves across the world, including India. Their simple food requirements, tolerance to different environmental conditions, rapid growth, high reproductive rates and aggressive disposition have allowed them to colonise new areas, often at the expense of native fish populations. And once established, they are nearly impossible to eradicate; earning them a spot in the top 100 of the world’s worst introduced species in the Global Invasive Species Database. The fishers also reported an invasive carp that they simply called ‘China’. Unsurprisingly, invasive fish now constitute the predominant catch in many parts of the Yamuna.
While Mayawati is plain-speak in the regions piscine parlance, we couldn’t quite comprehend this coinage until one fisherman scoffed “uski jaisi sab kuch kha jati hai” (devours everything like she does), hinting at allegations of the former chief minister amassing huge personal wealth when in power. Femme or fish, Mayawati was clearly loathed here. Nevertheless, this sobriquet was often a useful icebreaker to begin conversing with the many fishers we met there, and what better than to start with a good laugh!
While setting camp one evening, a curious fisherman approached us a little hesitantly. After the customary pleasantries and enquiries, as is wont in these parts, we settled down for a cup of tea and got talking about the local weather, crime and politics. We eventually broached the topic of the river, its fish and other wildlife, when at the mere mention of ‘crocodile’ he began gesturing animatedly and described seeing an animal basking occasionally in the vicinity over the last 5-6 years. What piqued our interest most was his description of a long snout with a ‘tumba’ at its end, still gesturing with his hands cupped in front of his nose. We showed him a few photographs and he picked the adult male gharial without hesitation. It was called ‘chonchiyaar’ locally, with obvious reference to its long, beak-like snout. Only a couple more fishers believed that gharials were resident here, but their assertions were suspect; embellished with savage depictions and outlandish claims that the ‘chonchiyaar’ lived in an underwater cave year round, emerging only in the floods.
But the strangest responses were reserved for photographs of smooth-coated otters that we showed around. While many people confused them for mongooses, understandably, others recognising them as fish, bear, tiger and even dinosaur provided comic relief! One fisherman who identified correctly asserted that otter packs were in the habit of hounding people before scratching and tickling them. Wisecracks, we hoped they were not, but such ripe imagination may be a sign that gharials and otters were either very rare or exist here more in legend than in flesh. Barely two or three people claimed to have seen these animals within a year or two. For most, they are a distant memory from atleast a decade earlier. And this was not unexpected after what we saw and heard along the course of the river. Though the lower Ken resembled suitable gharial habitat, the intensity of fishing, sand-mining and sheer hostility outside the PAs offered little signs of sustaining any gharials or our hopes.
|Most large sand deposits, potential nesting sites for crocodilians and turtles, are heavily mined in the region.||Concrete pipes are often laid across the river channel to build temporary bridges for sand-mining.|
Sand-mining and mining related habitat degradation in the Ken River. (Credits: Tarun Nair)
The fishers, closer to the confluence, who reported finding young gharials entangled in their nets during the monsoonal floods believed that they arrived from someplace upriver in the Yamuna. While some of these gharials were released alive, many succumbed to the nets or soon thereafter – a few fishermen admitted to killing and eating gharials; and in another case, a juvenile was captured alive and hauled up to the village only to be stoned by children who then managed to break its snout; and another fisherman described killing a young crocodile while spear-fishing. The fishers, themselves, don’t believe the gharial has much of a chance here. In their words, “they might escape our eyes, but won’t survive the nets”. Even the otters weren’t spared this brutality – with accounts of them being captured and taken away by poachers; killed for their pelt and another for the pot; and a case of an otter holt being smoked and its two pups killed. And in keeping with people’s carnal fascination for animal genitalia, we got several reports of gharials, muggers and otters being hunted for local aphrodisiacs. In fact, the only mugger burrow we saw in the lower Ken was rigged with a noose-trap right at its entrance, confirming the menace.
Strong winds and overcast conditions for a few days in the last week of a frigid December disrupted our surveys and we used that time to talk to the field staff at Mohareghat. Leafing through his meticulous notes, Ramadin remarked, “he hasn’t been seen here since 2007”, about the last known adult male gharial in KGS. Ramadin Yadav is an old-hand and works as a boatman with the Madhya Pradesh Forest Department. Was this the same animal with the ‘tumba’, we wondered, that the animated fisherman reported seeing around the time that this male went ‘missing’? Even our surveys revealed only a lone surviving adult, reportedly female, in the sanctuary.
The biggest challenge for this river specialist arises from the discontinuity in the river brought about by structures like the Gangau Dam, Madla Causeway, Barriarpur Weir and the low-lying bridge immediately downriver of KGS near Gumanganj that have not only altered river flows but also created insurmountable physical barriers. This may, in part, explain the fate of many released gharials; individuals that moved downriver during high water could no longer return to the relatively safer confines of the PAs, and likely succumbed to fishing nets and other hostilities outside.
But looming even larger is the monstrous proposition to link the Ken and Betwa Rivers, with the Ken condemned to be the provider. With recent approval from the Union Cabinet, the Ken-Betwa link threatens to further fragment the Ken and effectively cease even residual flows in an already water-starved river. The proposed Daudhan Dam, to divert water away from the Ken, is also set to submerge around 6000 hectares of the Panna Tiger Reserve. While successive governments continue to repress the landscape, they might as well rename this as the ‘bro-Ken’ River.
The Gangau Dam inside the Panna Tiger Reserve is the first major obstruction on the Ken river. The Daudhan Dam, a part of the Ken-Betwa river link, is being proposed about 2.5 km. upriver from here and will submerge around 6,000 hectares of land in the reserve; and the parched channel of the Ken River in the Ken Gharial Sanctuary immediately below the Barriarpur Weir. (Credits: Suyash Katdare)
Despite the growing city of Banda letting its raw sewage flow in, the Ken is the last big river providing much needed freshwater into the highly polluted Yamuna before the latter meets the Ganges at Allahabad. If this government is even remotely committed to reviving the Ganges through its Namami Gange programme, then it will do well to restore natural flows in the Ken and re-examine the rationale of the Ken-Betwa link. Until then, this river will remain a watery grave for the gharial, its menacing monsters merciless.
Acknowledgment: We were supported by the Gharial Conservation Alliance (MCBT), Zoological Society of San Diego, Rufford Small Grants, Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund, and Idea Wild during their project across the Betwa, Ken, Tons, Son and Gandak Rivers. We thank the Madhya Pradesh Forest Department for permissions and logistical support; Raghu Chundawat, Joanna Van Gruisen and Jaipal Singh for their courtesy and company; and Kishan Kewat and Rajinder Kewat, our boatmen, for tolerating us.
An edited version first appeared in Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXIV No. 6, December 2014 and can be accessed here.