Yangyel Lhaden

The locals are gathered for a Tongba session, seated around a long rectangular table. The topic of discussion is fish, particularly the Golden Mahseer.

Tandin Wangmo, 24, takes the lead. “Our village is home to the endangered Golden Mahseer, and it should be spared from fishing.” A young man counters: “All fish are alike, be it Golden Mahseer or any other. And, don’t be a hypocrite, as you also eat fish.”

Tandin responds: “Yes, you are right, and we need more young men like you for our village to develop.” She engages in a night-long discussion with her villagers, passionately advocating for the significance of the Golden Mahseer.

The Golden Mahseer (Tor putitora), also known as Tigers of the Rivers, is an endangered fish species found in rivers of southern and eastern Bhutan. Jigmechhu is renowned as the best fishing spot with sightings of Golden Mahseer. However, due to Jigmechhu’s status as a high-end recreational fishing spot, community members are prohibited from community capture fisheries.

The next day, Tandin is out with her daughter to buy some meat for lunch, still discussing the importance of the Golden Mahseer. “It is difficult to convince villagers, especially those who have been relying on fishing for their livelihood.

“I don’t blame the villagers because there is nothing in this village other than fish, as agriculture faces a multitude of challenges.”

Jigmechhu faces extreme weather patterns, making agriculture almost impossible in summer. In winter, human-wildlife conflicts, particularly with elephants and wild boars, destroy people’s hard work.

“Illegal fishing in Jigmechhu is strictly monitored by forest officials,” Tandin says. “However, there are still people who go fishing during odd hours.”

Recently, Tandin attended training on fly-fishing, a method of angling that employs an artificial fly as bait promoting it as an alternative income source. It emphasises precise casting techniques and mimicking natural insects to attract fish. Fly-fishing is less harmful and attracts international tourists.

“If we protect our fish, especially the Golden Mahseer, we can promote fly-fishing in our village for alternative income,” Tandin suggests. “Fly-fishing is less harmful, and we release the fish back to the river. International tourists are particularly interested, bringing economic benefits to our community.”

Whenever Tandin finds an opportunity, she challenges her fellow villagers to protect the Golden Mahseer, advocating for eco-tourism and village development.

“We have an option for alternative income now,” Tandin says. “I urge my fellow villagers to, at the very least, refrain from fishing during the egg-laying stage of the Mahseer.”

Convincing her villagers, especially the older ones, is not always easy for Tandin. When persuading the elders, she draws examples from the nearby village of Jabchu near Jigmechhu, emphasising the consequences of not safeguarding their fish and the interconnectedness of the ecosystem.

“Jabchu boasts many beautiful traditional houses, yet its population currently stands at only four, including a lone caretaker for the Lhakhang,” Tandin says. “I often emphasise to the elders that if we don’t safeguard our fish, a day will come when they vanish. We have a critically endangered species, the White-Bellied Heron, which solely relies on fish. If the fish disappear, so will the bird, and eventually, there will be no fish, no bird, and no youth.”

“I ask the elders, ‘Is that the future you want?’” Tandin concludes.