Rare Assam snakefish on the brink of extinction

  • Channa barca or barca snakehead fish, a rare species of snakehead endemic to the Upper Brahmaputra Basin in northeast India and Bangladesh.
  • As it is a rare ornamental fish, it is in high demand in the international market and susceptible to illegal trade. But it still does not enjoy significant legal protection.
  • There have been proposals to include it as a listed animal in Indian wildlife laws while some experts say if the government is to exploit the commercial value of ornamental fish it should do so through the captive breeding and monoculture.

It is the end of May and it has been raining continuously for the past three days. The rams and the ponds of Orang National Park in Assam are filling again. The monsoon is here, and so is the season for making extra money, Jalaluddin thought. He has already discussed it with a few local fishermen from the outlying villages of the Park. If they can catch the ‘Pipli Cheng’ fish for him, he promised to reward them generously. Guwahati’s buyer 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 that.

‘Pipli Cheng’ or ‘Cheng Garaka’ is the local name of Channa barca or the barca snakehead fish, a rare species of snakehead endemic to the Upper Brahmaputra Basin in northeast India 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 described it as Ophiocephalus barca (now Channa) first seen in the Brahmaputra River near Golpara in Assam.

Currently, it is mainly found in and around Orang National Park located on the north bank of the Brahmaputra River. It is now a rare ornamental fish and never harvested in large numbers.

“It is found in the Brahmaputra basin which, being a flood zone, is suitable for its typical habitat. It is an ornamental fish species that is 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 parts of Bhutan and Arunachal Pradesh, ”said Sushil Kumar Sarmah, associate professor, Department of Zoology, Guwahati City College, Assam. “It is a very endangered species and at any time it could be completely extinct.”

The fish take refuge in burrows or vertical holes along the outskirts of wetlands which usually dry out during the winter. These three-foot-deep burrows usually lead to a larger chamber with a water table that rises during the monsoon season, causing the fish to come out to hunt and breed. During this period, the monsoon season is also when it is hunted by poachers.

Why the demand?

This snakehead fish is attractive to the eye and has great ornamental value among specialist aquarists, in national and international markets. As it is rarely available and limited to a single particular region of the Brahmaputra Basin, it has become extremely expensive over the years and is now among the most expensive fish in the world. Overall it was assessed as lack of data by IUCN and in 2014 it was assessed by IUCN as Critically Endangered due to habitat loss in Bangladesh.

In August 2017, eight numbers of this species were smuggled near Orang National Park. The smuggler planned to supply the ornamental fish to Kolkata. The following month, five more species of this species were seized near Orang National Park.

In October 2019, two people were caught red-handed by the local police station in Dalgaon, Orang National Park, while attempting to smuggle a Channa barca fish in Guwahati. According to reports, they planned to sell it to Guwahati at four times the price. These two people seemed to be what are commonly referred to as the “intermediaries”.

In August 2019, a poacher – commonly referred to as the “catcher” – was caught with a Channa barca fishing by forest guards inside the park.

A trader involved in the aquarium fish trade in Guwahati but who refused to identify himself said the fish was smuggled into Calcutta via Guwahati from where it is exported to various countries.

“At ground level, the fishermen don’t get a lot of money, but as soon as a middleman steps in, it becomes more expensive when they reach Guwahati and the price of a single fish skyrockets. When it reaches countries like China, the price goes up even more, ”he said.

Why Orang?

Orang National Park is one of the oldest game reserves in the state (1915) and, according to many, it was home to the Orang tribe before they left this place after a deadly disease that spread. In the region.

“Orang National Park (ONP) sits on the north bank of the Brahmaputra River and has extensive connectivity with Kaziranga, Nameri, Burachapori through a river landscape called Kaziranga-Orang River Landscape (KOL),” Dipankar said. Lahkar, director, Tiger Research and Conservation Division-Aaranyak, who has extensive knowledge of the area.

“KOL ensures the biological permeability of the ONP with the flood plains of the Kaziranga landscape and to the north-west, two river corridors, the Dhansiri and Pachnoi rivers, linked to the forest complexes of the TraMCA (Manas Transfrontier Conservation Area) at the Indo-Bhutanese border, ”Lahkar added.

“About 8 to 10% of the area of ​​the ONP is covered by water bodies which include 12 wetlands and 26 artificial ponds,” he added.

These wetlands, ponds and rivers with the Brahmaputra flowing nearby have evolved into an ecosystem that is home to various rare and ornamental species of fish such as the Channa barca.

Orang National Park in Assam. Photo by special arrangement.

The problem

The problem is that there are still no laws or appropriate government initiatives to recognize this rare species of fish and protect it from contraband.

“As it is a rare ornamental fish, it is in great demand on the international market. But the biggest problem is that it is still not included in the Schedule, Part II A (Fish) of the Wildlife Protection Act 1972. If they somehow manage to get the fish out of the national park, they can easily mix it up. with other normal fish because it does not fall under any law. It’s like transporting any other normal fish, ”said Pradipta Baruah, MPO Mangaldoi, where Orang is located.

From the start of the rainy season, rams and the ponds of Orang National Park are filled with water and the inhabitants of the peripheral areas of the park are trying to secretly sneak in and catch this fish in the hope of making easy money. Some of them are apprehended but many manage to catch the fish and smuggle it out.

“So, by patrolling, we try to prevent smugglers from entering the park. Certain electronic devices have also been installed in strategic places to stop the entry of poachers. However, some disbelievers sometimes manage to sneak in. Our intelligence network is there and the police are also cooperating. We also managed to catch some and recently three poachers were arrested, ”he added.

There have been multiple allegations from locals and local organizations that some officials / rangers have been involved in smuggling this rare fish from Orang National Park. Local vernacular newspapers carried numerous reports in which it was alleged that at least part of the rangers were involved in poaching activities.

“Some forest officers / rangers were definitely involved and they had allowed this rare fish to be captured and smuggled out of the park. But these forest people were recently transferred from the particular area where it was happening and I hope that now it will stop. But then again, this happens during the monsoon season, now is not the time, ”said Abdul Aziz, secretary of Dalgaon Vanya-Prani Suraksha Samiti, a local wildlife protection NGO in Orang National Park. .

This has been denied by the forestry department on numerous occasions.

“It’s not so true. We will know if they are involved. It is also true that sometimes if the patrols are not done correctly, some people take the risk, ”said DFO.


“I applied to include this particular fish under the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972 as a listed animal. The State Wildlife Board had recommended earlier to include it as a listed animal. So we proposed this to the government, but it cannot be done by the state government, the central government has to do it. It’s in good standing, ”said DFO Baruah.

On the other hand, zoologists like Sarmah have argued that if the government is to harness the commercial value of the region’s endemic ornamental fish, it should do so in an appropriate manner through captive breeding and captive breeding. monoculture.

“We had carried out a feasibility study on the ornamental fish trade where we clearly mentioned that these ornamental fish species endemic to the region should never be exported without captive breeding, even if there is a demand. huge international, ”Sarmah said.

“If endangered species are exported without captive breeding or mass propagation, they will soon cease to exist in the region. An appropriate and strict control system should be put in place at exit points such as airports and train stations so that these highly endangered fish species cannot be smuggled in, ”he added.

“Monoculture should also be practiced if captive breeding is practiced, so that the female of the species is not exported and the ornamental and endemic status of the species is not compromised,” Sarmah stressed.

Read more: Gollum surfaces in India: Scientists document first underground snakehead fish

Banner image: Are covered Channa barca 2018 fish. Photo courtesy of Northeast Now.


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