The Truth About Piranhas

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Photo: T. Hilde

Waking up at 4:00 this morning was a bit rough for everyone, I think, but there’s no doubt it paid off over the next few hours. And as sad as it was to say goodbye to a rich, deep sleep, I can’t imagine a better way to wake up than to the sound of light rain hitting the forest canopy and the soft light of kerosene lamps glowing through a mosquito net.

After a quick breakfast of fresh fruit, yogurt, and warm pancakes, we marched off with our flashlights and headlamps illuminating the muddy path down to the river. A short boat ride upstream would take us to the morning’s destination: Tres Chimbadas Lake, also known as the Oxbow Lake. Our guide Rodolfo explained that chimbadas was a local Spanish word for “crossing”—in this case referring to two particular stones that allowed one to cross the water in a combination of three short legs. The term “oxbow” comes from the lake’s shape. These bodies of water form when the winding path of a river is cut off by the creation of a new path. The old path silts up at the ends and becomes a lake. For each of the past four years the Peru class has made the journey to the lake in the hopes of seeing a wide variety of wildlife. As it turned out, we enjoyed an exceptional amount of luck today.

The first highlight of our adventure, for me, was the light as we made our way down the Tambopata River. The dawn sky was filled with a soft brown-orange glow, doubly reflected back by the orange-brown river. The sensation of gliding along in a glowing world rimmed only by a dark band of trees was pleasant and peaceful. One thing that stands out to me here is the orangish brown of the muddy river. For some reason I was expecting something darker brown, like the rivers that I’m familiar with in eastern North Carolina. This morning, the river seemed to meld with the sky. Even in the afternoon light, later, it seemed to have a bold presence beyond that of the rivers I’m used to.

We had another 20-minute hike from the boat’s landing to Tres Chimbadas. Upon arriving at the lake, we boarded a simple catamaran to take our two-hour tour. Jonny, our guide-in-training, served us well as our paddler, maneuvering a combination rudder-paddle in a sort of one-oar rowing motion. I’m not sure if any of the students tried their hand at paddling, but it looked like fairly difficult work. As Jonny propelled us, Rodolfo and our other guide Oscar scouted for wildlife.

Our first sighting was a horned screamer, a bird shaped similarly to a quail but much, much larger. High up at the top of a tall tree, the bird sat silently surveying the area. We saw its quail-like horn crest, but we didn’t get to experience the “screamer” part of its name until our return trip, when it let out a cacophony that traveled out across the water. Like our guides said, it really did sound a bit like a donkey. One thing that several of us have noticed so far is just how loud some jungle animals are. There are so many animals with voices that carry across the water and the forest.

Pretty soon Rodolfo pointed out an electric eel—an electric eel?!, I thought—in the murky lake water. What little we saw of it didn’t look very electric, but we hovered over the railing trying to catch another glimpse. Some of us were lucky enough to see it stick its mouth out of the water, gulping for air, before it descended back under the surface out of sight. I’m not sure where I thought electric eels came from, but that was one animal I didn’t expect to see here. And that brings to mind one other thing that keeps occurring to me on this trip, how fascinating it is to see animals in their natural habitat that we see in aquariums and zoos back in the States. It definitely makes things more real.

We saw a number of other birds as we floated down the lake. Our keen-sighted guides pointed out a heron off in the high grass by the shore. A pair of blue-headed macaws and then a kingfisher couple flew across the open expanse, clear to everyone’s eyes but known only to our guides. Several of us have expressed how impressive it is that Rodolfo, Oscar, and Jony can name an animal even by just a fleeting glimpse of its silhouette. One bird seemed to line the lake more than any other, the hoatzin (pronounced like Watson with a quick huh added to the front). I enjoyed the way Oscar and Rodolfo imitated the hoatzin’s voice, a low heh heh heh kind of sound, any time they saw one in the low branches along the water’s edge.

And now, to the title of this post: the truth about piranhas. Despite what Hollywood would have us think, it turns out that these fearsome fish, with their terrifying teeth, feast on… fruits and seeds. That’s right, they munch on the fruit and seeds that fall into the water from trees along the shore, rather than gnawing on living flesh. That said, it’s true that they’ll take what they can get when they’re desperate, in which case they just might nibble a conveniently placed human leg. We had the opportunity to get up-close-and-personal with these fabled flesh-eaters. While several students tried their hands at fishing, it was our skilled guide Rodolfo who hauled in what turned out to be a surprisingly small fish. Admittedly, it was a young one, but some of us had imagined something a little larger. Rodolfo plucked a leaf from a tree branch and held it up to the little critter’s mouth. We weren’t disappointed, as the piranha munched and munched and munched, and munched, at first one leaf and then another. Our toothy little friend kept going until we had our fill of pictures and Rodolfo tossed him back into the water.

All of this adds up to a pretty nice adventure, but the real highlight of the trip to Tres Chimbadas was seeing the fabled giant river otters. Professor Hilde has made the journey to the lake three times before, always hoping to see these otters, a critically endangered species. It didn’t take long before Oscar and Rodolfo pointed out a faint flashing in the water, way down at the other end of the lake. We made our way slowly towards them until they finally became visible dots to the naked eye. (Tip: if you ever make it to this neck of the woods, bring some good binoculars!) Throughout the next 45 minutes or so we followed the otters down the lake as they fished along the bank. We had some great views of them floating along and munching on fish. After we got within 40 feet or so, they made their way to a log to clean each other and then they swam off to rest. We followed suit, gradually making our way back to the landing to head back to the lodge.

The otters were the visual highlight of the morning, to be sure. They also stood as a good example of an important lesson our guides shared with us. Oscar and Rodolfo explained how Tres Chimbadas is a common good, open to anyone who wants to visit to see the wildlife. The native Ese’eja community of Infierno owns the land to one side of the lake, while a rich former mayor of the nearby town of Puerto Maldonado owns all of the other side. This rich landowner has his own lodge located on the bank above the lake. His visitors use motor-driven boats for their sight-seeing expeditions, unlike visitors to the Posada Amazonas lodge, who glide along quietly in manpowered catamarans.

Our guides described a sort of tragedy of the commons, in which anyone can visit the lake as they wish. All visitors disturb the wildlife to some extent, but the noise and chemicals of motorboats disrupt the habitat more. Either way, the rare river otters tend to not breed when their environment is loud and unstable. It’s unlikely that tourism on the lake will decrease, though visitors negatively impact the very habitat that they come to see.

– Marjorie Rapp

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