If asked to name ten native fish species, students would be stumped: Professor Rajeev Raghavan

TNIE catches up with fisheries scientist Rajeev Raghavan, one of the foremost aquatic conservation biologists in Kerala 
Kufos team is uncovering a well in  which subterranean fishes are discovered
Kufos team is uncovering a well in which subterranean fishes are discovered

KOCHI: Rajeev Raghavan, the assistant professor at the Kerala University of Fisheries and Ocean Studies (Kufos), is a popular figure in the world of aquatic conservation. He and his team have discovered and described 23 new fish (including three new genera, and two new families), as well as a unique new genus and species of blind subterranean shrimp. 

Some of his discoveries have received worldwide attention – for example, the discovery of Aenigmachanna gollum (the world’s first subterranean snakehead fish), Neolissochilus pnar (the world’s largest cavefish) and Pangio pathala (the subterranean eel-loach which became popular after Leonardo DiCaprio highlighted the species discovery on his social media handles).

Two new species of fish, Channa rara and Indoreonectes rajeevi were named in honour of Rajeev for his contribution to his research on freshwater fishes of the Western Ghats region. 

Recently, he was named in Stanford University’s list of the world’s top 2% of scientists. Here, in a free-wheeling chat with TNIE, Raghavan talks about aquatic life and conservation, his time as a researcher, and challenges. Excerpts 

Rajeev with fellow scientists honoured
with medals by Fisheries Society of British Isles

How did your interest in aquatic life conservation blossom?
Growing up, I used to keep a fish at home. That’s perhaps how it all began. A career in fisheries was not planned at all. As a biology student in Class XII, MBBS was the obvious choice. But I couldn’t get in. Fortunately, it was a time when a lot of new-generation courses were coming up. Fisheries was one of them, so I opted for it.

Did you find the course capable of reinforcing your interest in the subject?
We were taught very little at first. It was only much later, when I began my masters’ programme, that I started to get a feel for it. In 2001-03, there was definitely a lack of priority for research. We were years 
behind. The reason I went abroad was so that I could get more exposure. I did doctoral studies on a scholarship at the University of Chinese Academy of Sciences in Wuhan.

Was that where you found your feet as a researcher?
It was after Wuhan, during the three years I spent with the International Union for Conservation of Nature in the UK, that my research goals started to become more ambitious. I was working on freshwater fish conservation then, primarily focused on the Western Ghats. It was also a time when I worked on IUCN’s Red List as its coordinator for Asia and Oceania regions.

What prompted your return to India?
Even when I was in the UK, all my work was India-based. So it made sense to return. In 2015, I learned that Kufos had an opening for a very specialised post – in fish taxonomy. This is not commonly found in other universities. In fact, Kufos is the only university in India to have this post. 

Had curriculum improved by the time you got back? 
Sadly not. For the past 20 years, the curriculum in India has been about exotic fishes. If asked to name ten native fish species, students would be stumped. They would know a few that end up on their plate. Other than that, nothing. That’s because the idea of fish here is all about food, and production. From the ministry to the grassroots level, there’s no focus on fish conservation like the kind we see for wildlife or birds. This is a big challenge.

What are the other challenges?
Kerala has many rivers, but our focus has always been on marine aquatic life. The truth is that it is freshwater fishes that are more endangered. There are fishes in the Chalakudy river and Thekkady reservoir that are found only there. The lack of awareness breeds indifference. My time working on the Red List has brought to my notice that all priority species are freshwater ones. About 60-65 per cent of freshwater fishes in the Western Ghats are not found anywhere else. 

Today, the focus seems to be on subterranean fishes...
I’d say yes. But let me elaborate on why – unlike river and marine fishes, subterranean fishes are living in people-dominated areas. Groundwater extraction poses a big threat to these fishes that have enjoyed conditions with little or no human interference. So they stand at the risk of faster extermination than others. Hence, the priority. That said, my research focuses on fishes in both subterranean and freshwater ecosystems.

Our aquariums generally feature a lot of exotic fishes, not many native ones… 
Most of the fishes you see in aquariums today are river fish, mostly from the Amazon 
region. Our local fishes are also as attractive as these tropical counterparts. Since this is not explored as much, there is little awareness. Interestingly, there is a small, niche market in the UK for Indian wild fishes.

Aquarium pet trading also poses a big risk, doesn’t it?
Yes, they are the biggest reason for the entry of invasive alien species. We call these fish tank busters. When we buy them, they are small, but they soon outgrow the tank, forcing people to throw them in a nearby waterbody. Then, there are other fishes that breed profusely. These, too, are released into nearby waterbodies, thus creating a havoc in the local ecosystem. Aquarium fish traders should be more responsible.

How can a layman foster an interest in aquatic life?
Like how I did, keeping a fish at home. Ideally, a local one.

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