There are some creatures that have inspired and awed people through the ages. Some real animals like lions, tigers and elephants and some legendary like dragons or the unicorn. The mahseer (Tor spp.), a genus of very large, often beautiful and powerful fishes found in South and south-east Asia, fall right between the two. Mahseer are a real animal that has reached legendary status.
Often referred to as the “tiger of the river”, mahseers have been revered by the Indus Valley civilisation for more than 3000 years, worshipped by Buddhists and Hindus and treasured by local communities throughout the region. More recently, their fame has been maintained by featuring as one of the great icons of wild river angling – and it was this angling that has helped propel a species into conservation limelight.
For many years, anglers have yearned to fish for mahseer. Many stories and books have been written on the wonders of fishing for mahseer and the ultimate target, the holy grail of mahseer fishing, is the largest of the mahseers, the hump-backed mahseer.
The story of the hump-back has its own twist in its tail. Hump-backs are only found in the Cauvery River system in southern India and were first popularised in the late 19th century by British officers who considered mahseer angling to present a superior sporting challenge to shooting big game. Following Indian independence in 1946, many believed the mahseer had gone extinct, until a new era of conservation minded catch-and-release anglers (including Jeremy Wade of River Monsters fame) proved the fish was still extant and reignited a global interest in mahseer fishing in the late 1970’s. This drove the establishment of a recreational fishery, where the income from international anglers was used to employ local villagers as angling guides, drivers, bait makers and cooks. This quickly led to the realisation that local livelihoods now relied on the mahseer and that a live mahseer had a renewable value over a dead fish. Accordingly, whole communities started protecting this river from the poachers who often used highly destructive fishing methods (such as dynamite!).
In 2010 Adrian Pinder, a fisheries scientist from Bournemouth University and Director of the Mahseer Trust, took a curious and thankfully scientific look at the detailed records of the daily catch. In the records, together with the photos taken by the proud anglers, he noticed that there were two types of fish recorded, one with blue fins and the other with orange fins. He also noticed that overtime the larger orange-finned fish was declining while the blue-finned version was increasing. Could it be that these two were separate species and that one was beginning to push the other out? Pinder set off to find out and in 2018 he presented the results of his detective work which afforded the hump-back mahseer its first valid scientific name allowing the species formal recognition and qualification for conservation status assessment. In November 2018 the hump-backed mahseer was assessed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Without action, Pinder and his colleagues concluded, the hump-backed would be lost in our generation