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Are these infamous fish man-eaters or victims of hype? Writer Robert Kiener travels to the Amazon rainforest to find out for himself


Piranh as with

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S OUR NARROW 14-foot-long fishing boat bobs quietly on a remote lake deep in the Amazon rainforest, my guide Enrique Sanchez gives me a hands-on lesson in how to catch one of the world’s most feared fish—the notorious red-bellied piranha and its larger relative, the black piranha. Known in some quarters as “man-eaters,” these freshwater carnivores are thought to hunt in packs and devour their prey bite-by-bite, ripping off flesh with their razor sharp teeth. It’s midday and 90-plus degrees Fahrenheit. The equatorial sun is beating down on us as I listen to the 59-year-old veteran guide. A pair of rainbow-hued parrots flies noisily above us, and the rainforest’s palm trees are alive with boisterous black spider monkeys. Nearby a long-limbed, white-necked heron stands guard.

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piranha and hauls it into the boat. So does our boat driver Renato, a local ribeirinho (river dweller), who’s also an expert fisherman. Soon, we’re getting a bite almost every time we drop our lines in and are catching one piranha after another in the aptly named Piranha Lake. Our raw beef bait is like a magnet to the fish, which have such highly refined sensory systems they can detect blood from hundreds of feet away. I imagine a shark-like feeding frenzy going on just below the lake’s placid surface. And those teeth! Holding a 10-inch, three-pounder in his right hand, Enrique shows me the business end of this much-feared predator. Its razor-


“Before you cast your line into the water you need to slap the surface like this,” says Enrique as he noisily beats the water with the tip of his bamboo pole. The heron flies off. “This gets the piranhas’s attention. They think it’s an animal in distress; an easy target.” Mimicking Enrique, I slap the water with my four-foot bamboo pole and then drop my raw-beef-baited line and hook into the water. Almost immediately I feel a bite. “Got one!” I shout excitedly as I quickly yank the pole straight up, as Enrique has taught me. But all I have for my efforts is an empty hook; the half-inch square piece of bloody beef is gone. As I re-bait my hook, Enrique quickly hooks a plump red-bellied

sharp, quarter-inch-long, interlocking teeth look like a small bear trap. As he thrusts the piranha closer to my face, he says, “Just look at those teeth!”

and there with small wooden homes where residents scratched out a living farming for bananas, fruits and fish. We shared it with the occasional slowmoving ox-cart and peasant farmers TO REACH this remote lake, I on bicycles. boarded a flight to Manaus, capital By the time we reached the end of the state of Amazonas in northern of the bone-jarring drive at a simple Brazil and known as wooden shack built the “entryway to the on stilts along the MaAmazon,” I hired Enmori River, even the The guide rique to take me fishsmall farms had dising for piranha. It took appeared. “Welcome thrusts the us almost a day of rugto the Amazon rainthree-pound ged travel to arrive at forest,” said Enrique. piranha Piranha Lake, some 70 We boarded a 14closer to my miles south. foot long, metal outface and A motorized water board boat and were says,“Just taxi took us across the soon zipping along mighty, muddy Amathe coffee-colored look at those zon River to the busMamori. teeth!” tling, ramshackle port B o at i ng t h rou g h settlement Careiro da what is essentially a Varzea. The simple flooded forest was wooden shops and houses were all like traveling back through time. The built on stilts. Some on the river’s edge shore was dense with towering trees; were built to float. Enrique explained, some of the more than 16,000 species “The Amazon rises and falls about 40 that give this remote part of the globe feet during the year. During the rainy its name, the “Lungs of the World.” season the river will flood this land as After an hour on the river, we arrived well as much of the rainforest. ” at the Amazon Turtle Lodge, one of We traveled in a Volkswagen bus the best places to see the piranha up on a two-lane paved road past mas- close. sive cattle farms that had been hacked out of the rainforest. The smell of ACCORDING TO fish experts, piracattle dung hung heavy in the moist, nhas have a remarkably powerful bite, humid air. The pavement soon gave especially given their relatively small way to a rugged, potholed and often size; most are under a foot in length. rained-out red dirt road, dotted here A recent study showed that black pira| | 05đ2014 [[2R]]


nhas could exert a bite force 30 times nhas have a horrible, and ill-deserved, their bodyweight. No other animal reputation,” Huskey told me. “Could matches up, including the great white they be lethal? Yes. You have to reshark. Even the powerful American spect them. But they’re not the manalligator pales in comparison; a pira- eaters many think them to be.” nha’s bite force is three times as powVeteran Amazon fishing guide Paul erful as an alligator of similar size. Reiss agreed, saying, “They would be In addition to their powerful jaw more scared of you.” muscles, the piranha’s teeth are perEnrique has nothing but respect fectly designed for for the tough, fighting slicing and dicing fish. He held up his their prey. Their trianright index finger and A recent gular top teeth close showed me a vicious down perfectly into one-and-a-half inch study the gaps of their lower scar that encircled it. showed that teeth. As one writer “The red-bellied pirablack noted, “Powerful jaws nha bit me hard, all the piranhas complete the arsenal, way down to the bone, could exert a snapping quickly and when I picked it up to bite force 30 show it to someone,” continuously, allowexplained the experiing piranhas to carve times their enced Peruvian guide. flesh off the bone like bodyweight. a buzz saw.” “What’s really amazWhile there have ing is that I had caught been rare reports over that piranha 20 minthe years of piranhas attacking and utes earlier and it had been lying in killing humans, none have been fully the bottom of my boat, out of the waauthenticated. Steve Huskey, associ- ter, all that time. Then it still had the ate professor of biology at Western strength to nearly bite off my finger. Kentucky University and piranha re- Piranhas never stop fighting.” searcher and frequent visitor to the Most of the local fisherman I talked Amazon, says movies like Piranha to had a story of being chomped on and Piranha Part Two: The Spawning by a piranha. One, Alipio Gomes, simshare the blame for building up the pi- ply held up the ring finger of his left ranha’s man-eater reputation. In these hand. The tip was missing. He had films hapless victims are chomped to been fishing and was removing the bits by marauding schools of ravenous piranha from a hook when it lopped piranhas. off an inch or so of flesh and bone. “Thanks partly to Hollywood, piraNone of this surprises the experts | 05đ2014 [[1L]]

Enrique Sanchez holding a black piranha that he caught using raw beef as bait.

I spoke with. Huskey explained that piranhas have had to adapt to the low oxygen levels that result when water levels on freshwater lakes and rivers in the Amazon rainforest drop perilously low each year. “As the water levels drop, the piranhas have to compete for food, space and oxygen. They are tough customers.” Indeed, it’s during this low-water season, usually in November, when piranhas are typically at their most dangerous. When trapped in small pools they can literally starve to death. An animal, especially a wounded or infirm one that ventures into such a pool, can create a feeding frenzy.

BY MID-AFTERNOON, the humid, moist air hangs heavy as the sun beats down on us. My t-shirt is soaked with perspiration and I’m wiping beads of sweat off my forehead. Our latest fishing hole, near the edge of the lake and close to a wide swath of cana brava grass, is teeming with piranhas. The fish are biting. Fearsome as they look, I know they’re just suffering from a bad reputation. Everyone I talked to before my trip here—professional sport fishermen, marine biologists, academics—all told me basically the same thing: Don’t believe the horror stories. | | 05đ2014 [[2R]]


Looking out over the surface of the if there is any trouble. As I loop the calm lake I recall what Amazon fishing rope around my waist, the trailer for guide Paul Reiss had told me when I the movie Piranha comes to mind, asked him if it was safe to swim with “When flesh-eating piranhas are acpiranhas. “Just make sure you’re not cidentally released into a summer rebleeding. Piranhas may think you are sort’s rivers, the guests become their a wounded animal and take a bite out next meal.” of you.” Then he joked, “I’ve only lost But I’ve gone too far to back out a couple of my fishing clients to pira- now. As I stand up and hand Ennhas!” At least, I think rique the rope his eyes he was joking. widen and he asks me, I ask Enrique, “What “You’re really going to I ask, “What would you say if I told do this?” you I wanted to swim In a flash I am over would you with the piranhas?” the side of the boat say if I told He is startled. He and in the lake. The you I wanted tells Renato I want to water is cool on my to swim go for a swim. Both of skin, refreshing after with the them now look conthe heat of the sun. But piranhas?” as I begin kicking my cerned. While locals legs to tread water, Endon’t consider piranha He is rique tells me to stop. man-eaters, they don’t startled. go out of their way to Flailing in the warm swim with them. “They water, in the middle of have a nasty bite,” says what may be a school Enrique, suddenly serious. “He shows of piranhas, is not a good idea, he me his mangled index finger as a re- says. I feel something brush across my minder. leg. Then again. Renato carefully removes a small piI grab the side of the boat and it ranha from his hook and tosses it back begins to drift into the thick grass. into the mirror-calm lake. Enrique Not good. In addition to piranha, this asks me, “Did you notice that every is where stingrays, electric eels and piranha we caught today had bites black caiman, South America’s alligataken out of their fins? That’s proof tor, like to hang out, waiting for their that they love to bite each other. And next meal. Enrique shouts at Renato maybe you.” to quickly paddle the boat away. I’ve brought along a 20-foot long Although I’ve only been in the water rope that I plan to tie around my waist for a few minutes, I feel like it’s time to so Enrique can haul me out of the lake get back in the boat. I haul myself over | 05đ2014 [[1L]]

Writer Robert Kiener on his short, daring dip into Piranha Lake. The thick grass harbored more than fish.

the side and sit down. Enrique seems much relieved. “You seemed really worried,” I tell him. “Why?” “If you had been bitten; the piranha would have smelled blood and gone after you.” “Bitten?” I asked him “By what?” “Just before you got back into the boat I saw a four-foot caiman come out of the cana brava and swim right by you.” THAT EVENING, back in our lodge, Enrique, Renato and I are dining on some of the red-bellied and black piranha we recently caught. We are having it both grilled alone as well as cooked in a tasty soup, a caldeirada, with plenty of locally-grown vegetables. I prefer the soup; the fish is softer and tastes sweeter than the grilled dish. And there is the irony of the meal; I am biting into the fish that might have bitten me. Piranha is tasty but very bony. As I take a forkful of black piranha a small bone gets caught in my throat and I begin choking. After I free it Enrique reminds me, “What did I tell you, the piranha never stops fighting!” | | 05đ2014 [[2R]]