Mud eel hunters of Bangladesh
Ganesh has one of the strangest ways of making a living. He traps gangetic mud eels, locally known as Kuicha. As he walks along the city’s peripheral villages, his eyes are fixed on the shallow fresh water along the roads. He occasionally wades into the water knowing exactly where he is going and picks up the bamboo traps he had set the day before. Interestingly, each of these tube shaped bamboo traps usually has one or more of the eels.
Mud eels (scientifically known as Monopterus cuchia) are amphibians and can survive for months in mud holes during periods of drought. They can grow upto 2-3 feet, and are obligatory air-breathers, which inhabit holes and crevices in the muddy banks of swamps, lakes, ponds and slowly running rivers.
Like Ganesh, there are specialized communities in Sylhet, Mymensingh, Rangpur, Jamalpur and adjacent districts who are traditional eel trappers. Their forefathers trapped eels for food, when export was not an option.
“Every year during the rainy season, we come from Maulavibazar in Sylhet to these areas to catch eels,” says Ganesh. “Yesterday our group of five set about 50 traps around this area and we caught 10 kilograms of eels,” he adds as he prepares the bamboo tubes with a bait of earthworm, for the fresh casting of the day.
Ganesh and his five compatriots send one of their men with the day’s catch to a buyer in Karwan Bazaar; each kilogram of the mud eels sell for between Tk. 400 and 500 (US$ 5 – 6). The buyer only buys live eels for export to Kolkata, Hong Kong and other Asian countries where it is a delicacy in the gastronomical industry.
In Bangladesh, mud eels are popular as medicinal fish, particularly among Hindu and Christian communities. In many countries, including Bangladesh, traditional healers prescribe mud eels for anaemic patients. Villagers in Savar and Keraniganj look on in wonder as the Sylhetis scramble through their wetlands for something they hardly eat. “We do not mind they (trappers) come here for a living we know nothing about,” says Shafat Mia, an elderly man from Shutkir Tek in Keraniganj. “We have no idea how they make the bamboo traps in which once the Kuicha enters for the bait, it cannot come out,” he adds.
Ganesh says they make the traps by hand from bamboo. “It costs almost nothing but it requires a skill that I learnt from my father,” he says. “A few years ago, there were plenty of kuichas everywhere in the country but nowadays it is hard to find them.”
“Demand for the fish has silently gone up as soon as they started exporting it; there might come a time when there will be none left in these waters,” says Ganesh.
A few farmers in Mymensingh and indigenous people in Netrokona have taken up small projects to farm mud eels, which are rated by researchers as having a high potential for export earnings.
International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) does not rate the mud eel as threatened but it says further research should be done to assess the situation of this species.
Nonetheless, a recent research paper on mud eels, conducted jointly by three different departments of Shahjalal University of Science and Technology and Dhaka University, paints a different picture. The review paper published in the Journal of Global Biosciences, clearly rates the local mud eel as ‘vulnerable’, due to loss of habitat, over-exploitation and contamination of our waters. The paper also highlights its global demands and its potential for the local farming industry.
However, fishermen like Ganesh continue to use age old trapping techniques to catch this slippery fish and supply it to the plates of connoisseurs of faraway lands; bringing in foreign currency in yet another sector for the country.
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