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Our Adventure Apprehending Paiche Poachers In Pacaya Samiria National Reserve

Aug 17, 2007
Most of you know that the Amazon River is by far the largest in the world, with more fresh water discharge than the next six largest rivers combined, but to appreciate that volume of water, you should join us going upstream in Dawn on the Amazon.

Tucked up tight to shore in the slack current at three quarter throttle, we watch life on the river unfold as it has for centuries, with the native inhabitants living a subsistence lifestyle in harmony with their environment.

We see most people still live like their ancestors, in thatch roof houses built on stilts to stay above the flood, with no doors or windows, and frequently with no walls, with strips of soft bark for floors. A machete, a bucket, and a few pots and pans are their only manufactured implements.

Men and women work together tending a patch of yucca, a small grove of banana trees, with a few lemon, lime, orange, papaya, mango, cashew, or cocoa, and other exotically delicious jungle fruit that most of you have probably never heard of let alone tasted, such as zapote, mamey, ubilla, guaba, shimbillo, macambo, copoazu, caimito and camu camu.

The typical mode of transportation is still the dugout canoe, and nearly always a fisherman is in sight working his net, or an individual or family are canoeing. Women wash clothes in the river, carry water in buckets to their houses, cook over open fires, and nurse babies. Children run up and down the bank waving and yelling at us.

My two favorite guides, Edson and Beto, hurry back to report to our guests that our most important geographical landmark, the confluence of the Maranon and Ucayali Rivers is just around the bend. With cameras in hand, everyone moves to the bow of the boat to record our passing through the beginning of the majestic Amazon River. Our course is the Ucayali fork, to the left going upstream. The north bank of the Ucayali River is the southern boundary of Pacaya Samiria National Reserve (PSNR).

It is difficult to comprehend that the reserve is larger than some countries without cruising to the far, remote entrance, the Pacaya River. After miles of jungle go by, interspersed with rice planted in the flood plains and peanuts planted in the sandy soil uphill from the rice, and we pass many boats and villages, eventually over five million acres begins to take on meaning.

When Dawn on the Amazon turns up the Pacaya River we enter one of the great wetland environments on earth. Within ten minutes it is like being in another world. We see giant Paiche near the opening to a lake. Paiche are the largest freshwater fish with scales. They are unusual for their size and because they have lungs. It is common to find them two meters long and weighing 125 kilos when they surface to breath.

Edson and Beto rush to 84 year old 'Abuelita' Eileen, pointing to make sure she sees the cloud of parakeets, I guess there are a hundred, followed moments later by eight to ten large parrots. Before we left Iquitos Eileen told us she hoped to see parrots in the wild. She saw a lifetime worth of parrots along the Pacaya River.

When we came through this stretch of river a month ago we saw fifty sloth, this time only one; curious the ebb and flow of wildlife. We know birds and monkeys easily move to a new tree full of ripe fruit, but it is hard to imagine sloth moving so slowly through the jungle to a new food source.

Hawks are hunting. Horned Screamers honk their loud, liquid call, mixed flocks of Snowy and Great Egrets, cormorants, ducks, and herons, fly or fish close to the boat as we glide upstream. But our unique adventure in PSNR is not about seeing the seven species of monkeys, or the hundred species of birds, nor several dozen pink dolphins, or the iguanas, caimans, capybara, or sloth. We expect to observe them when we enter the reserve. Our adventure is with the most interesting and dangerous primate of all, Homo sapiens.

The ranger in charge of the second check point, Jose, immediately informs us there is an emergency. Six paiche poachers have been spotted hidden away at a lake twenty minutes upstream. With only four rangers in the area, he asks for our assistance. A few years ago the reputations of everyone in the village of Bretana were tarnished when paiche poachers from that village murdered three rangers who tried to confiscate their nets and canoes. Because of that crime, the village is considered dangerous and our boats never stop at Bretana.

Jose wants me to go with them, but with six guests on board I believe my first responsibility is to them. I ask Beto if he would go with the rangers and take our VHF hand-held radio to maintain contact with Dawn on the Amazon. He reluctantly agrees, but is not pleased with these unexpected events. He knows the story of the murdered rangers as well as I do.

Jose has a plan. The poachers have set up camp next to a small stream connecting the largest lake in PSNR to the Yarina River. That stream is too small for Dawn on the Amazon III so we tow the ranger's boats behind us, and when we come to the stream the rangers and Beto paddle up the stream to the camp. The poachers hear our boat go past and believe they are safe.

We go on to block the only possible escape route, and if necessary to ram their boats and prevent their escape however we can. Beto takes the hand-held radio to maintain communication and one of our cameras to record the evidence.

Beto tells the story: "It was difficult to get through the stream because it was choked with aquatic vegetation. We had to push pole through the water grass, and get out pushing the canoes and Jon boat. It took over an hour to get to the camp. I noticed buzzards pecking at a pile of fish heads and carcasses.

"I saw the infractories, packing their gear to escape. Jose jumped out of the boat to confront them. I heard the conversation get louder and louder. The leader said they were only trying to have a system to survive. Jose argued that it is easy to survive without poaching. The other infractories whispered suspiciously while getting their machetes.

"The rest of the rangers saw the threat and sprang out of the boats as one of the poachers attacked Jose with a machete, aiming a killing blow to the back of his neck. Someone shouted a warning and Jose spun around just in time to grab the attempted murderer's wrist.

"As they fought for the machete, the poacher screamed, 'Here we will kill each other.' Jose wrestled the machete away and threw it in the water. The other rangers formed a circle around Jose and the attempted murderer on the ground fighting.

"The other poachers were closing in threatening with their machetes when I shouted into the radio, 'Officina, officina, base, base, we have trouble. Send in the other rangers, send help, send help, over.'

"Everyone heard the reply, 'Help is on the way. Rangers on the way. Keep us informed, over.' That was all it took to take the fight out of the poachers. They laid down their machetes. That is when I radioed back, 'It is over. We are OK. Negotiations have begun, no reinforcements necessary, over.'

"I could not understand these negotiations. The infractories always spoke as if they had done no wrong, that we were wrong to bother them. The man who spotted the infractories and informed Jose of their location works for the rangers but lives in the village.

The leader of the infractories shook his finger at him as he threatened, 'You are the person who let them know we are here! Our trouble is your fault! Make sure I do not see you tomorrow...'

"They were allowed to keep their nets, canoes, spears, and half of the paiche. They had eight large turtles and four medium size turtles in a bag. Jose ordered them to release the turtles. They refused. They argued that since they were allowed to keep half the paiche, they should be allowed to keep half of turtles. After much arguing, all of the turtles were released.

"They were absolutely positive that they should be allowed to stay and fish like honest fishermen. They argued with Jose for an hour, but Jose was insistent that they leave. They refused to go.

"Jose explained that every ranger in the reserve has been notified by radio of their activities and they would be followed and monitored the entire fifty kilometers to the entrance. Still they argued so forcefully to stay that Jose became suspicious and a search was conducted around the perimeter of the camp.

"One of the rangers discovered a freshly killed, fifty kilo paiche covered with leaves. They had the nerve to argue that half of that fish should also be theirs, but even Jose's patience was running out, and he ordered them to leave immediately.

"As they started paddling downstream, the leader turned and threatened, 'This is not the end of it. It will not stay like this.' Jose replied with a threat of his own, 'I can not believe you would be stupid enough to cause more trouble now that every ranger knows your name, where you and your family live, and what you have done.'"

It is quite possible that Beto's quick thinking with our VHF radio saved the lives of all the rangers, as well as his own. The rangers rewarded him with a big slab of the fresh paiche. He was kind enough to share with all on board Dawn on the Amazon III. We all agreed that the paiche made some of the best ceviche we have ever eaten, and no one ever ate better fish than the fresh fillets of paiche fried in palm oil.

I have been thinking about men willing to kill or be killed for a fish, and thinking about a system of punishment that lets an attempted murderer go free. I remember near Mayo, Florida, around thirty-five years ago, three game wardens were murdered on an old logging road in the swamp. Many of the mothers of deer hunters in town feared that the murderers might be their sons.

I have personally known poachers in Indiana. The poachers I know are never motivated by survival. Most often it is wildness, a belief that the law does not apply to them, and in some instances, laziness. What is the easiest, fastest way to put meat on the table? Should our paiche poachers be allowed to keep half of their catch? Should they keep their spears, nets, and canoes? These are hard questions to ponder as we continue our journey.

We are escorted upstream by a pod of pink river dolphin. They are protected by legend and custom. The people of the river believe pink dolphins have supernatural powers and it is the worst kind of luck to harm one. They swim at will without fear of poachers.

At the third ranger station we learn that no one has visited since we signed the log book two months ago. This wilderness between the second and third ranger stations seems to be Dawn on the Amazon's private reserve. It is wonderful to have the opportunity to enjoy this nature experience and is more marvelous still if you know how to value it.

Now if we can just catch the poacher who cut down the Big Leaf Mahogany...
About the Author
Bill Grimes provides custom cruises on the upper Amazon River and its tributaries from Iquitos, Peru. For details, visit Dawn on the Amazon Tours and Cruises at http://www.dawnontheamazon.com
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