When we first settled into Cheetal Walk in the 1960’s, the favorite activity of my siblings and myself, encouraged by our father of course, was catching fish in the Sigur River or Sigur Halla. There were all sorts and sizes of fish. My father used to go to the larger pools with a bamboo rod, line and worms dug up near the kitchen, to catch some carp for dinner. In fact, the tribal woman working for us said quite sadly one day: “poor man is catching fish so that his family can eat.” Those were the fish those days, sometimes reaching a few kilos in weight.
In 1968 everything changed: the river went dry. This was because of the construction of the Pykhara dam in the upper reaches of the river, increasing agricultural activity and diversion of water downstream. There were fish of all types and shapes and colors flopping around on the sand or dying in the pools. The river was fetid with the smell of dead fish. Many animals enjoyed this special treat, but the elephants were distraught by the lack of clean water. They dug wells in the river bed and waited patiently for the water to rise up to drink. We went fishing with the tribal children and caught some of the larger fish. We even caught an enormous eel well over a meter in length weighing about 10 kg.
The Sigur Halla started drying up every year and the fish disappeared. After the rains I would go to the river and see fingerlings emerging from the eggs that had been deposited in the sand. This continued for a few years and we enjoyed fishing with bedsheets, catching the small fish and putting them in an aquarium. My brother Mark used to have two aquaria in the 1990’s with some of the river fish. We used to put some in our well. Our well held water even in the dry season, although the level was very low. We had not been to Cheetal Walk for many years except for short spells, and when we moved there in 2013, the river had just become a storm drain with red muddy water only flowing during the rains. When peering into the well, I noticed one fish: a species of murrell (Channa spp.) also called snakehead, at the surface of the water. Seeing its sad lonely life, I thought it was the sole survivor of the fishes we had put inside the well. There were several species of murrell in the river, but now I never saw even one. During the rains this year I looked again for fingerlings. No luck.
I was determined to find a companion for our lonely murrell, so I asked our cook, who is a tribal person from this region, to find me some river fish. He said that none of the rivers in the region, Anaikatti, Sigur or Mavinhalla had even one fish. All had disappeared due to the drastic change in flow patterns. This got me really worried. He reiterated that there were plenty of fish forty years ago but all had gone. About 25 or more fish species became extinct in the Sigur Halla.
Then a few days ago we wanted to clean the well and noticed more than one fish in the well. What joy! The Murrell was not alone. Maybe we need to examine old wells and other permanent water bodies (if any) in the region to re-stock the Sigur Halla if it ever recovers from the colossal negligence and indifference it has suffered from human hands. To make the River flow again, we need to be sure there is a minimum amount of water at all times, and young ecologists who take its future in their hands.