When you finally see it, you will wonder what all the fuss was about. It will be small, barely bigger than one of your nails.
In fact, you will not even see it if you search for it in Zambezi River. Not because it’s too small for the hissing waters of the big river but because it prefers the cool, silent and dark waters of Sianda stream. Sometimes, it flows with the stream into Kataba River but never beyond. In this regard, it prefers the quiet serene suburbs of a city as opposed to the city itself.
Dennis Tweddle, a South African resident from Britain, together with his team, have searched for the elusive small fish in the rest of the upper Zambezi system to no avail. As someone with a keen passion and intellectual curiosity for the fauna that live in rivers and oceans, he has been on the trail of the little beauty but has only found it in Sianda stream and Kataba River.
Armed with a D-shaped net, Dennis and his team scoured the waters, searching for the elusive teeny tiny fish. They mostly focused on floating vegetations as it likes living under them.
Just a few inches away from the curious net, neobelias nestles by the dangling roots of the vegetation. She is well refreshed after a restful night and is looking forward to another fishy day. The cool waters that are brushing by her scales have travelled all the way from their source at a large headwater swamp that feeds Kataba River.
The Upper Zambezi river system that hosts Kataba River and Sianda stream is a labyrinth of moody water that comes and goes according to the rainy season. When it rains a lot, the floodplain overflows with water, plants spring to life and fish come calling, much to the delight of Chinga, a local Lozi fisherman.
Like many Lozi people in Upper Zambezi, Chinga looks forward to the flooded plains because it means more fish. And more fish means more food plus a bit more money.
The rain means so much to him that his favourite two words in the whole world are, ‘pula ikalile.’ The rains have started.
As he paddles along Sianda stream, Chinga doesn’t care much about the banded neolebias, as the little fish is known. He is understandably more preoccupied with bigger, fleshier fish that can fill the stomach and fetch some Zambian kwacha.
IUCN has listed the banded neolebias as critically endangered. It’s living on the edge of extinction cliff and could plunge into extinction any moment.
Unfortunately, simple, innocent maize can potentially push the fish into extinction. Maize and other food crops. Pollution from fertilizers and herbicides can threaten their fragile habitats, inching them further towards that dreaded extinction edge.
Does it mean that the local Lozi people shouldn’t farm just so that some tiny fish can live? It is possible for the people and the fish to co-exist as they have for ages. This can be done by fostering a symbiotic and not a parasitic relationship. How that can be done is a matter that can be decided in consultation with the Lozi people themselves.
Further to the pollution, every time the cool cover of the dense vegetation is removed, the tiny giants are left coverless and exposed to the elements. This could be a reason why they were not found in the canalized parts of upstream Kataba River.
A river canal is essentially an artificial river bed that channels the waters of a river to other areas where it doesn’t flow naturally. This may have short term agricultural benefits for the local Lozi people but it interferes with the natural river ecosystem that secures habitation for the tiny giants.
Kenyans and Zimbabweans that have experienced the flattening of their homes by bulldozers in the name of development can identify with the plight of the neobelias. But luckily for some of these evicted residents, they had the option of purchasing houses elsewhere with the compensation money paid by the government.
Since the neobelias don’t have the option of purchasing new floating vegetation, they have to make do with whatever they can get before eventually losing the struggle to survive.
For now, many neobelias are thankfully winning the survival struggle. While it isn’t clear approximately how many are still swimming in Sianda stream and Kataba River, it is evident that they are not swimming anywhere else in the world.