This article is written as a complementary to an article Betta sp. “Mahachai” (avaiable at http://www.siamensis.org) by Nonn Panitvong. The natural habitats of the mysterious Betta sp. “Mahachai” have been revisited nine months after the first exploration by Nonn Panitvong, Akkapol Wisitchainont, and the author in October 2001.
This is meant to be a report on current situation of Betta sp. ‘Mahachai’’s natural habitat in July 2002, almost a year after Betta sp. ‘Mahachai’ is introduced into aquarium trade (as seen wildly avaiable for sale at Jatujak Fish Market in Bangkok around November-December 2001) and become the talk of the town. It has gained popularity among ‘Fighters’, ‘Fanciers’ and ‘Wild-type Collectors’ alike. Betta sp. ‘Mahachai’ is well-know for its endurance and skilful wild fighters while the fanciers tend to cross-breed them for green genome, hence the strain ‘Natural Green’ (which I believe it is B.splendens x B. sp. ‘Mahachai’ cross). Within the International labyrinth enthusiasts, Betta sp. ‘Mahachai’ is known to almost everyone as a charmingly colourful new species. Demand has soared, and it directly affects the survival of the species –not to mention the urbanization of its habitat.
The author strongly hopes that this article will shed light to create awareness of preserving our environment and bring in conservation of Betta sp. ‘Mahachai’. Human and environment as well as creatures like animals and plants are inter-related. A good practice of co-existence is crucial for today’s world of exploitation. If nothing is to be done to save Betta sp. ‘Mahachai’’s natural habitat and to maintain its population, I believe that it would be extinct from the wild within very near future.
Look for new distribution of the Population
In the evening of very boring Wednesday, my mobile rang in middle of my drive back home from university. I received a call from my fish fellow for a day collection trip to Betta sp. ‘Mahachai’ habitat in Samutsakorn Province on Thursday 24th (?) of July 2002, which is a public holiday. We set out very early in the morning to Mahachai; the road was so clear the weather was so fine –a somewhat unfamiliar situation for us the Bangkokian in rainy season. I drove the car was ‘Tony’ Anurat Tejavej was a talkative navigator while Nonn Panitvong and “Mee” Chaiwut Krudpan entertained us in the back.
Our first stop was the suburb of Bang-kra-jao, a small community on the left bank of Chao Praya river. Bang-kra-jao is some 30(?) kilometres from Mahachai area. As the localty much resembles that of Mahachai (i.e. a “Jark” nipah palms -Nypa fruiticans swamp), it is believed with much hope to see the species distributed in the area. It must be noted that there is no record of the existence of B. sp. ‘Mahachai’ in Bang-kra-jao prior to our visit.
Through small roads leading from Pra-pradaeng district to the bank of Chao Praya river, we reached a small community of Bang-kra-jao. Fruit plantations, that used to dominate much of the area, are now replaced by new modern houses. We searched on the sides for a Nypa fruticans swamp, though only one was spotted. With much desperation, we ran into the swamp, look for good water and observe the bubblenest in the “Krapok Jark” (the small confine purse formed by dense petioles of nipah palms). Upon my great delight, I saw the bubblenest in the “Krapok Jark”.
The bubblenest witnessed was compactly dense; that of Betta sp. In contrast, the bubblenest Trichopsis vitatus, which is so abunduntly and widely distributed in Thai water, is loosely constructed. Very often, almost always, Trichopsis vitatus is found in the same habitat as Betta sp. While Betta sp. attracts everyone, from local small children to serious fighters, making it vulnerable to disappear, Trichopsis vitatus is everywhere. Thanks to its dull colour and being less territorial (i.e. less willing to fight), it interests noone.
We photographed the bubblenest; at least it would confirm later that it was really that of Betta, not of Trichopsis. We did not catch the fish underneath the bubblenest; instead, we tried to search for more Betta’s nest. Unfortunately, there was not any; inferring that there were not many of them. We decided to leave the nest undisturbed in order to make sure that the fish would be able to maintain its strain in this locality at Bang-kra-jao. We left the swamp, searched for more swamp after swamp. No fish, not even the nest, was later seen at nearby sites in Bang-kra-jao. What ashamed!
Polluted v. Not-yet-polluted swamps
We left Bang-kra-jao and drove further to an formally-informed habitat. Though unvisited by us, this locality has many times been explored by other people, local and strangers alike, before. We had been told of the location by Eric Bourdier, our good fish friend who resides in Bangkok. He, along with his Thai wife, had collected many Betta sp. ‘Mahachai’. Surprisingly, Eric reported that he had found domesticated form of Betta splendens in nearby habitats. It tells us something; another threat to the pure strain of B. sp. ‘Mahachai’ is now being introduced by such misunderstanding and wrongdoing.
On our way, we drove pass an exploited nipah palms swamp, polluted by rubbish, waste and sewage. Water turns black and Nypah fruiticans seems withering away. Like its human relative, the crab-eating macaque (Macaca fascicularis) native to the swamp adapts itself well to the changing enviroment. People stopping by the road and feeding the macaque at this polluted swamp stunned me with anxiety.
Alas, we reached the destination –a not-yet-polluted swamp surrounded by factories. We did not hesitate to explore. Once we got into the swamp, covered by huge leaves of the palms, it really gave a feeling of real challenge. Urban image was left behind, though it was less than a kilometre away. Fresh air was breathed and cool breezed was felt.
One trick of searching for all Betta sp. is to look for bubblenest. Labyrinth buids bubble as a nest to deposit eggs. It varies genus by genus; each deserves its own characteristic. Trichogaster trichopterus’s nest is large with very fine bubble –it could be as large 20 centimetres in diameter. Those of Trichopsis vitatus and Betta sp. ‘Mahachai’ are much smaller with such characteristic mentioned earlier in this article.
The water was tinted brown. Hundreds of Trichopsis vitatus were seen swimming in open water. We looked for Betta’s bubblenest in the ‘purse’ of Nypa fruiticans, or ‘Kapok Jark’. We also saw Half-beaked liverbearer (Dermogenys pusillus) in the catch. For the whole one and a half hour wandering in the swamp, bited by insects, annoyed by troops of ants, scared by snake, only one female Betta sp. ‘Mahachai’ was caught under the only one spotted bubblenest. In fact, we found two nests, however, the other was full of eggs –we just walked away without any disturbance. We departed the site with great disappointment and profound concern for the survival of the species.
Before our departure, we talked to the local who worked as a motorcycle taxi by the fatory. He told us that the swamp had been visited by many people, coming from places day after day, to collect ‘Pla Kat’, or fighting bettas. I doubt that the catch is for their own passion, rather it was to serve high demand in aquarium trade, both domestically and internationally.
Actually, we intended to be back to Bangkok by noon, or 2pm at the latest. We were totally in doubt why the B. sp. ‘Mahachai’ had disappeared so rapidly, or we had little luck, or little skill to catch them. The fact that we did not spot very many, to count only a few, Betta’s bubblenest should be the best answer.
We did not want to come back with empty hands so we continue our search. We drove further to the District of Kra Tum Ban where we had been in October 2001 (see Betta sp. ‘Mahachai’, an article by Nonn Panitvong). After a quick lunch at a noodle vender on the other side of the street, we crossed the busy road to the swamp. Locating in front of us was the swamp we had visited nine months ago but to our eyes was a different place. The palms were thinned out and the water is covered with green alienated floating water fern (Azolla sp.).
I looked at my friends and they also looked at me, as if to ask if anyone would like to try to search. No. We all agreed to turn back, sensing that it would be in such difficulty to find any fish. Every single square contimetre of the swamp was thickly topped with this floating ferny plants. Nypa fruticans leaves are cut; the local uses it as roof tops and walls. (The approximate one-meter-long-and-half-metre- wide-leaves are compactly weaved, being sold for 2 baht a piece, equivalent to about 5 cents in the US currency.)
Less leaves, more light super-enhances plant growth. Pollute water, more nitrogen compound is great fertilizer. Azolla sp. thrives so well, at the same time threatening the Betta’s natural habitat. I wonder if the labyrinth would be able to gulp air on the surface when breathing under thick clutches of this floating plants? If not, Betta sp. ‘Mahachai’ would be really in great trouble.
Time flew. We had to go. By then, Nonn's girl friend already called him hundreds times (while my mobile was ‘temporarily’ run out of battery!) Indeed, the girls were all pissed off as we did not come back on time as we had promised! Bang!!!!
more survey ...