by Tan Heok Hui

This was my second trip to Sarawak and proved to be most interesting. Betta taeniatawas at last found by pure and simple unadulterated good luck. This time around, we concentrated on the areas around Kuching.

Day 1
We arrived on Sunday, hoping to soak in the atmosphere of the weekend market at Jalan Satok. To our dismay, it had already closed in the early afternoon. Apparently, the market starts on Saturday, lasts through the night and stops just after noon on Sunday! We also discovered that Sunday is the official rest day for the majority of shops and businesses in Kuching. Luckily, some shopping centres were still open. For lunch, we tried out some fast food at ‘Sugar Buns’. It was DEPLORABLE!! We have, since then, steered clear of that fast-food chain. The car hire shop was also closed on Sunday, therefore we had to wait until Monday to start work.

Day 2
We managed to get a vehicle, after some early morning calls to the hire shops. Luckily, the shops there open early (8.30 a.m.). We proceeded to sample the areas around Matang where Linke (1990) had collected some Betta taeniata before but no belontiids were caught, which was very disappointing. At the last site of the day, ~10 km from Kuching in the Matang area, we caught some Betta cf. akarensis and two species of snakeheads – Channa lucius andC.bankanensis. The water was black and pH 4.1, the stream situated next to a peat swamp forest. We headed back toward town with heavy hearts.

Day 3
We headed toward Serian town, where we had breakfast and also visited the local wet market. There was a variety of freshwater food fish on the stalls, among which wereAnabas testudineus, Channa striata andClarias nieuhofi. Next we headed away from Serian to our first site, about 1 km toward Gedong, a clear water, fast-flowing stream of pH 5.9. There were torrent fish here –Homaloptera cf. tweediei and Nemacheilus saravacensis. We hit pay dirt at the next site – Betta taeniata ! This river was about 7 km after Serian into the turn-off directly after the town and a further 6 km into a right side road. We were about to give up when we decided to just keep going for a few minutes more. Voila! A small river, about 10 m at its widest and up to 1.2 m deep flowed across the road. The water was clear, pH 7.0. The substratum was gravel-strewn with stones and rocks. In certain stretches, there were riffles and these were very fast-flowing. There was no aquatic vegetation but rheophytic aroids were present.

The first dip of the net brought up a Betta. It was a rather short and stocky specimen with short fins, which had blue edges on the caudal and anal fins- Betta taeniata!! We were so excited and exhilarated but although we fished for about three hours, we only managed to get about 10 specimens.

Torrent fishes were also present in this river –Paracrossochilus vittatus, Homaloptera cf. tweediei, Gastomyzon fasciatus, G.punctulatus, Nemachilus saravacensisand Glyptothorax sp. I was very excited indeed! This was the first time that I had caught B.taeniata and Gastromyzon, moreover in the same habitat. Initially, when I first caught Gastromyzon I thought it was a torrent tadpole but on closer inspection, it had two pairs of splayed-out fins on the anterior part, with a rather colourful caudal, streaked with blue. The body colour was blackish, one species had a barred pattern (G.fasciatus) and the other was spotted (G. punctulatus). We met an Iban local, who identified B.taeniata in the Iban vernacular as “Ikan T’pachi”. After this site, we headed back to Kuching for a celebratory dinner.

Day 4
We set off with two Sarawak Museum staff to guide us around the Lundu area, west of Kuching. The road around that area was still under construction, so we had a very bumpy ride. It was also a very hot day so that some unripe bananas, bought in the morning and left in the car, were literally cooked brown by the end of the day. The streams sampled in that area were generally shallow and clear and depopulate. No belontiids were caught.

As we headed back to Bau, somewhere about mid-way, we stopped to sample a small river. It had slightly tea-tinged water (pH~6.8) and it was quite fast-flowing in parts. Aquatic vegetation was present –Cabomba and Barclaya motleyi. The presence of Barclaya indicated that there was a swamp forest upstream. The stream yielded one Betta species. When I first caught it, I thought it was a large Betta taeniata (~50 mm SL). It had a rather broad, pale-blue anal fin edge and a little blue on the caudal, together with an iridescent greenish-blue operculum. On closer examination, I realised it was actually a specimen of the B.pugnax complex – the first to be reported from Sarawak.Luciocephalus pulcher and Nandus nebulosus were also caught. Torrent fish like Homalptera cf. tweediei andGlyptothorax were also found here.Carinotetraodon salivator were obtained, although they were very difficult to catch as they prefer the deeper parts of the waterway.

Next we sampled a stream near Kampung Stinggang, which certain literature cited as an excellent habitat. We found out, to our utter dismay, that the villagers had transformed the stream into a dumping ground. There was even a maggot-covered dog carcass near the stream, which someone nearly stepped on. The stream had a substratum of very fine, almost silt-like, sand. Certain stretches felt like walking on quick-sand. The water was murky, indicating some heavy disturbance upstream, most probably logging. After that, we headed back but I couldn’t help but feel upset by the polluted state of the last site.

Day 5
No belontiids were obtained on this last day of collection when we sampled south of Bau town. It was a fast-flowing river with murky water and a sandy bottom. This site was prone to flash floods, as evidenced by its steep banks. Luckily it was another sunny day. An interesting loach was caught here-Acantopsoides robertsi, which was also the highlight of the day. Next, we tried a stream outside the Fairy Caves, which was a karstic (limestone) area. The surrounding areas had been converted into cocoa plantations. Fish diversity was low, probably due to the excessive chemicals leached into the plantations which was evident from the oily layers on the water surface. The only interesting fauna found was a small, freshwater clam. It was plentiful in the stream bed, found at the surface and in the anoxic substratum.

Day 6
Before heading back to Singapore, we did a bit of souvenir hunting at the water-front shops. A note of interest from our observations driving around Kuching. It is a city of roundabouts (traffic circles). At every junction, there was a circle. Even in small towns, there was a small circle in the middle of town. Someone should count the number of circles Kuching has and perhaps rename it ‘City of Circles’. Besides which, we had hardly seen any cats around the city of cats- Kuching!