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Ecuador: Illegal in the Jungle

In Ecuador, piranhas are considered a delicacy. No wonder they are seriously endangered and one pays high fines for piranha fishing. But who cares in the deepest jungle of the Río Napo?

The rain beats down incessantly upon our jackets like a rhythmic soundscape in the Río Napo countryside. It seems unreal, not least because of the bizarre voices coming from the thick rainforest to us on the river. These are not human voices, but it is unclear what else it could be. When the rain comes, the jungle moves.

I’ve long given up trying to shield myself from the giant masses of water. I’m soaking wet right down to my underwear. It’s been raining for hours. I’ve stashed my camera into safety under the thick nylon of my rucksack and have had no choice but to give up on our plan to document the trip in photographs. Admittedly, my companions are no less drenched, even if they are used to it. José* comes from the Ecuadorian capital of Quito, while Mutyani* grew up in the Yasuní National Park here in eastern Ecuador; the end of the Río Napo, to be precise, the biggest tributary of the Amazon. Today’s mission is to fish for piranhas. This is prohibited in Ecuador.

By plane and wooden barge into the heart of the Yasuní National Park

The journey to Ecuador’s backcountry is a veritable odyssey. I’ve been travelling for five strenuous hours: I took a taxi from Quito, then a plane, minibus and ferry until I got deeper into the wilderness, until I arrived at the Napo Wildlife Centre, hidden in the rainforest on the Añangu black water lagoon. From there, I took a small wooden barge for two hours, headed eastwards. Armed with simple paddles, we turned off very quickly from the main current, into the labyrinthine lateral branch of the Napo, in the middle of the jungle’s densest thicket. Rain? Both of them just laugh. The three of us do that a lot on this illegal adventure.

The piranha species is common in the rivers and tributaries of Ecuador. They also frequently appear in people’s frying pans – until recently, anyway. As the population of piranha fish along the Napo suddenly shrank, the government waived the law protecting the fish, which can be as big as the palm of your hand. They are a particular delicacy for the region’s indigenous people.

We may be wet, but then comes the sobering realisation that we need to locate the little piranhas first. José and Mutyani know how this goes – or at least, they claim to.

Deeper and deeper into the jungle

“Duck,” José whispers to me, allowing me to escape the branch of a liana tree hitting me right in the face. We have to be quiet so as not to scare the animals and the piranhas, I learn. Well, the rain is doing a good job of that. We go deeper and deeper into the rainforest, over deep black water along mud-coated banks, under networks of lianas. I feel as if Mowgli from The Jungle Book could suddenly jump out in front of us and tell us where the piranha fish are. Or maybe Tarzan could swing by? The mysterious sounds of the jungle allow the mind to wander, like the mushy driftwood in the gentle stream of the river. Now and then, we catch sight of the Tití brown monkey in the treetops. They watch over us, wide-eyed, as if they, too, were frightened of what they see. There’s actually nobody out here on the Napo except for us. Only us piranha poachers dare to go out in this storm.

But the piranhas are the real thieves here. Meanwhile, even in the Western world, every child knows that colourful creatures will bite anything that’s not fast enough.

“What would happen then?” I ask my companions curiously, feeling like an 8-year-old boy. I take care to speak as quietly as possible – we don’t want to wake any rainforest demons, after all. At the idea of dipping the tip of my finger into the water, I think of a scene from an old James Bond film, where the villain Helga Bradt gets thrown to the piranhas. José does not respond to my question, but simply makes a crunching noise with his teeth, leaving me alone with my fantasies.

Beef as fishing bait

He breaks the sudden silence with whispered explanations. “Swarms of piranhas can only be found in slow-flowing river or still water,” he says, keeping an eye on the trees along the river. And we seem to have reached that very place. The boys exchange hand gestures and gently put down their paddles. I do the same, while my gaze innocently wanders over the water. Our barge slows down. Mutyani pulls a thin branch out of a tree, skilfully wrapping fishing wire onto one end and on the other a piece of beef that a chef friend of his had given him in the morning. Before I can blink, it’s underwater.

“Why beef?” I ask José, whose English is understandable even when whispered. “Chicken doesn’t bleed enough,” he replies.

We wait five, ten seconds. While submerged in my own thoughts, I (see?) the blood José mentioned before my eyes, as Mutyani pulls the wire back up and the catch skids into the body of our little boat. There it is: the piranha fish is lying right there, bright orange, half as big as my hand, jaw wide open, dangerous teeth clearly visible. It snatches around – hopefully for air, I think to myself. Its teeth are sharp like a shark’s, only smaller. No wonder the literal translation of the word “piranha” is “tooth fish”. I immediately put away the idea of putting my finger in the water.

Piranha feeding in the pouring rain

But our adventure isn’t over yet. José fearlessly picks up the piranha fish, plucks a leaf from the tree and puts it into the animal’s wide open mouth. I can’t watch. Its sharp teeth cut the leaf in half in a millisecond. Even though it’s still pouring down, I get out my smartphone and snap a few pictures.

Then the spectacle is over. Mutyani lets the unharmed fish back into the dark current of the water. On the way back to the Napo Wildlife Centre, through the narrow strait of the Río Napo, we go back to conversing loudly and more animatedly. Even the quiet Mutyani does his bit to break the silence of the rainforest. He asks me whether I liked it in broken English, smiling so kindly that I get the feeling if he had better language skills it would be out of place. I say I liked it a lot. My childlike enthusiasm can probably still be seen in my glowing eyes. The rain has stopped in the meantime and even the animals seem to have calmed down a bit.

“Piranha fish have a strong swarm mentality,” says José. The creatures prefer dwelling in mixed-water areas, at the confluence of blackwater into whitewater. With a mighty stroke of the paddle, we head out of the Río Napo. Our exploit has reached an end. Mission accomplished. And just like the little fish, we return where we belong: back in civilisation.

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