Monday, September 6, 2010

Paying the exorbitant price of progress...

RIVERS, streams and even drains in and around the city used to teem with guppies, a hardy aquarium fish that is now virtually impossible to find in our waterways.

The females of the species were usually larger than the males and could grow up to 6cm in length. But, what the males lacked in size, they made up for with long colourful tails and fins.

They can produce hundreds of offspring in a matter of months in the wild.

The live-bearing fish is named after British naturalist Robert John Lechmere Guppy who discovered it in Trinidad in 1866.

Even when Kuala Lumpur's waterways were polluted by domestic waste in the 1980s and early 1990s, some guppies still thrived.

The females eventually got smaller and the males lost much of their colour.

Instead of taking their rightful place in aquariums, most of them ended up as food for larger aquarium fish, including the oscar, arowana and toman.

Guppies were also found in ponds and disused tin mining pools. At one such lake in Jalan Genting Kelang, 1km south of the Wardieburn Camp, there were plenty of guppies and terubuk fish.

During certain months, the terubuk would gather along the shoreline to feed on damsel and dragonfly nymphs and pupae.

The spectacle, which lasted a day or two, went unnoticed for some years. But, it attracted people living nearby and lured the toman out of the depths of the lake. The feeding frenzy of the toman would start at first light. It was like experiencing a National Geographic documentary in real life.

Those who had nets cast them into the feeding frenzy and caught both predator and prey, and other aquatic life.

One morning, there was a commotion at the lake. Terubuk fry and other small fish had turned up dead by the hundreds. Someone had used tuba root poison to stun and catch the bigger fish but the smaller ones were killed. That was the last time I saw terubuk spawn in the lake. Today, the lake has been reduced to a patch of water.

Seeing a man cast his net into a tributary of the Gombak river that flows by Sentul recently brought back such fond memories. Wading in thigh-deep waters, he was bare chested with only a pair of faded jeans secured to his skinny waist with a raffia string. He had cast his net into the river several times but without success.

Finally, there was a smile on his face when he hauled up his catch. I saw a couple of black tilapia, two fingers width in size, and some "Bandaraya" fish struggling to get free.

I congratulated the man on his catch.

"There are few fish these days," he said with a grin.

"I used to catch more fish years ago. The water must be dirty. There are more fish after rain, though," he added, as he put the tilapia into a plastic bag. He then threw the "Bandaraya" fish back into the river.

I asked him what he was planning to do with his catch and whether he kept predatory fish. The man looked surprised and replied: "I take them home and cook them. Maybe I'll give some to the neighbours."

I wanted to tell him that the fish could be contaminated but didn't because I didn't want to be rude. What if that was all he had to eat?

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