Kelah is a fish from the genus Tor. The general name of ‘mahseer‘ (Indian for ‘big head’) is popularly used. In the nothern parts of India, mahseer is also called ‘kurriah‘ or ‘kukhiah‘, whilst our kejor (tengas) is called ‘kajra‘.
|Scientific name||Tor tambroides; Tor tambra|
|English name||Malaysian Red Mahseer; Thai Red Mahseer; Greater Brook Carp|
|Local names||Kelah (Peninsular Malaysia), Empurau/Semah (Sarawak), Pelian (Sabah)|
|Salient features||Large strong head, thick lips with median lobe lower lip. Body cylindrical with slight compression; large scales. Colour ranges from pale to bright red. Fins range from pink to red to blue. Large forked tail and rudder-like anal fin.|
|Distribution||Indian, Myanmar, Thailand, Borneo, Sumatra.|
|Habitat||Medium to large rivers with rocky, sandy and leafy bottom. Prefers highly oxygenated water and dark environment.|
|Habits||Stations itself in prime lies where its needs of security, shelter and food it readily served. May forage in shallow areas or close to rapids when it is assured of security. A very shy fish.|
|Diet||Jungle fruits, insects, crustaceans. When mature, it may forage on small baitfish.|
There is high possibility that the anme of kelah is derived from these terms. After all, the Hindu civilisation was the earliest to entrench itself in the Malay Peninsula.
Deep in our pristine jungle rivers swim a ﬁsh so majestic, so beautiful and so elusive, it has become a holy grail for Malaysian and international anglers. The kelah invariably represents the ultimate challenge for these sportsmen. To locate this ﬁsh is already a triumph. Then comes the challenge of enticing it to take a bait, lure or ﬂy. Finally, the angler has to contend with its extreme strength and tenacity before it can be brought to the sandy river bank, to be lovingly photographed and released, none the worse for wear. In fact, many a time it’s the angler who is exhausted, albeit elated!
The kelah is one of Malaysia’s precious ecological heritage; a ﬁsh that is unique to the region. It is of very high economic value too. Anglers and eco-tourists are willing to pay signiﬁcant sums of money to meet this ﬁsh! The kelah is essentially a carp, placed in the order of Cypriniformes, although it is loosely related to the European barbel (Barbus barbus).. It’s closer relatives are the mahseer species of India (Tor spp.) and several other countries in Asia. You could say that kelah is amember of Asia’s prime sport ﬁshes.
Kelah can be found in the mighty rivers of our country: Sg Pahang and its tributaries (Tembeling, Jelai, Tanum, Tahan, Keniam, Sat etc), S. Perak and its tributaries (Kejar, Chiong, Singor, Temengor), Sg. Muda and its tributaries (Teliang, Gawi), the rivers feeding Lake Kenyir (Petuang, Cacing, Terenggan, Tembat), Sg. Kelantan and its tributaries (Galas, nenggiri, Lebir, Aring, Pertang), The Endau-Rompin rivers (Endau, Kincin, Kemapan, Jasin, Mas, Lemakuh), and the Batang Rajang and Sg Kinabatangan systems. In fact, almost all the major rivers in the country – with the exception of Perlis – used to have stocks of this beautiful ﬁsh.
However, factors like polluiton, river degradation due to silting, the straightening of rivers and deforestation have combined to destroy the habitat of this ﬁsh. Further aggravating the problem is the unscrupulous ﬁshing activities like illegal netting, bombing, poisoning and electro-ﬁshing that have severely decimated the stocks of kelah.
If you were to be a kelah today, these are the probable scenarios you would have to face in your now-shortened life:
- Your home of deep, dark pool laced with rocks and sunken timber would now be covered with a thick layer of silt, since the clearing of vast tracts of forest would have resulted run-off due to rains.
- Your spawned eggs would not hatch. The eggs would be smothered by the silt, depriving them of the much-needed oxygen.
- You face on a daily basis a plethora of nets and humans with bombs, poisons, harpoons, and electrodes in their quest for a nice supper or a fast buck.
- You choke on the chemicals from remote factories and run-offs from agricultural activities.
- Your river gets straightened, the river becomes too fast and too shallow for you to survive. It’s like living on a walkalator.
With these scenarios, the kelah and other prime ﬁshes like the temoleh, kelesa, kerai and tengas are doomed and heading for extinction. Ethical anglers were the ﬁrst group to realise this issue. As ﬁshermen, they are in a unique position to be able to see ﬁrst hand what is happening in our rivers. Many have started the self-imposed practice of ‘catch-and-release’, preferring to go home with a cherished photo rather than a dead ﬁsh. Now, a group of concerned citizens have got together to help the authorities and the angling fraternity to conserve this precious ﬁsh. Eventually, it is hoped that it will be for the good of all – the eco-tourism industry, the recreational ﬁshing groups, the country, and most importantly, the ﬁsh!