Releasing the Giants: Saving Guyana’s endangered Arapaima

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Article by Alex Arjoon, photos by Victoria Arjoon

The 14ft aluminium boat chugs its way up the river under the raging sun with four plus hours left until we reach camp for the night. I am delegated to the bow so that the boat is well balanced but my face is prime real estate for the glare off the river. We are off to the village of Apoteri, an indigenous community in the Rupununi region that is well known for its Catch and Release Sport Fishing Tourism, where visitors can catch the mythical Giant Arapaima, the world’s largest freshwater fish.

This year has been one of the hottest on record with an extended drought that has persisted since mid 2023 with no signs of slowing down. The country prays for rain as fires tempt fate in the developing urban spaces of Georgetown while ravaging vibrant biodiversity and pristine ecosystems over vast areas of our hinterland.

Distance of the Arapaima pond to the river where they need to be transported (Photo by Victoria Arjoon)

On the river the water level has dropped to the point where you are able to walk most of the journey. Were it not for the cameras, fuel and food rations we are carrying, wading the shallow water would be a far more appealing option. The very thought of dipping my head in the river is enough to satiate my longing for the cool, or at the very least two minutes of consistent shade, but the boat chugs on at half speed, very careful to not jam unsuspecting rocks below.

Filming the far ends of Guyana for the better part of the last decade has been surreal. My job has taken me to places most Guyanese don’t even know exist. Lands so inaccessible to the town man or woman that they may as well have entered the closet to Narnia. But even Narnia isn’t this special. The sounds of the forest and smell of the river become the portal to a frontier that is the country’s best kept secret. One that is slowly being revealed by the constant push of EcoTourism to the global marketplace. An industry that has the potential to boost Guyana to the forefront of environmental prowess and label us a model of sustainability and community owned enterprise.

Guyana is one of the leading countries within the Caribbean region that can boast community lead and owned tourism businesses and it seeks to further empower its Indigenous people and elevate their label as the country’s prime environmental stewards. One of the fast growing Eco tourism attractions in Guyana is its relatively nascent Sport fishing enterprise. The sport fishing is predominantly catch and release and attracts anglers from all around the globe who pay a premium to come to Guyana in search of the Giant Arapaima.

To catch an Arapaima is an angler’s dream. From the search, to the hook to the fight and then the release, fishermen far and wide revere this river monster as a crown jewel within the sport. These fish can be found predominantly in ponds within the rainforest. They are known to travel back and forth from river to pond during the wet season when water levels are high. This is predominantly due to their spawning patterns so they spend significant time living in ponds off the Essequibo River.

Due to the aforementioned droughts, water levels in both the ponds and river have dropped tremendously thus hampering the mobility of the Arapaimas and leaving them indefinitely stranded, exposed and vulnerable to predators within the shallow ponds. In many instances they have become easy prey for Jaguars. These feline predators haul the 300 lbs+ giant fish on to land and make an easy meal of them. Other times the water levels are so low that the Arapaima’s backs become scorched by the sun and they are rendered incapacitated pending an untimely demise.

This situation is a major source of concern for the people of Apoteri Village, an Indigenous community situated on the junction of the Rupununi and Essequibo Rivers, who rely heavily on their catch and release sportfishing business to carry a significant part of their economy. The sport fishing industry enables tour guides, cooks, labourers and boat captains to be employed within the tourism market as they are all key players in a successful fishing trip.

As part of a local filmmaking company, Reel Guyana, my sister Victoria and I have travelled hours from the urban capital to document this burning (pun intended) issue in the amazon affecting the community’s livelihood. Upon arrival we are introduced to a team who make up the majority of the village’s fishermen. Among them are a few high schoolers who are tourism stakeholders in training being groomed to carry the industry well into the future.

We meet one of the leaders of the group, Kenny Thomas, a humble and soft spoken man whose gentle nature makes us feel welcome. Kenny informed that the village is taking on the responsibility of maintaining their arapaima populations during this climate crisis. Waiting on the rains to fall and the water to rise risks losing too many fish and will cause a weighty blow to their industry. He informs us that there have been ongoing efforts by their team who travel for days along the river in search of Arapaima ponds so that they can execute rescue missions. However, the lack of resources has limited their capacity to clear vulnerable ponds efficiently, as fuel is not cheap nor easy to obtain from the rural village.

Given our impromptu visit it was only fair that we brought along a 45 gallon drum of fuel to aid in the rescue efforts. This will allow the team, inclusive of five boats and engines, to spend the next 4-5 days moving up the river in search of at-risk ponds that can be acted upon.

The excitement starts to grow. Despite having been fishing many times we have never seen an arapaima in the wild much less been able to film one. But the eagerness will have to wait one more day as Apoteri Village is just a muster point before we begin our mission the next day.

Early the next morning half the team assembles at the landing. The leader of this operation, a local veteran Arapaima conservationist, Campbell James who is a vital part of the mission is nowhere to be found. Despite committing to a 6am sharp departure, it is now 7am so we send out a mini search party. I have to remind myself that I am a guest here so my stickler attitude for being on time may need to take a backseat to keeping a positive working environment.

Soon after Campbell arrives. Campbell is a funny, fast talking old head who has had more experience in the field than the average person can fathom. Many of his stories seem too crazy to be true. As we begin our journey to the first Arapaima pond two hours up the river, we see a massive black caiman rearing its head out of the water as our boat passes.

“That has to be about nine feet.” Campbell says. “I wrestled one of those before and won. Had to show him who is boss.”

Usually I let these outrageous claims go, but I felt I had to challenge Campbell for his tardiness this morning so I told him that I don’t believe him. No one can wrestle a nine foot caiman and talk so casually about it.

He goes silent for a minute and I smile and continue looking out on the river trying to spot more wildlife. Suddenly he taps me on my shoulder and shows me his phone. Lo and behold it is a video of him in the water wrestling a nine foot caiman. I am in total disbelief and actually feel embarrassed for challenging him so arrogantly. That being said, it is extremely reassuring knowing that we are under the leadership of someone who knows exactly what they are doing out here.

We finally arrived at the first pond. Half the team is sent away to look for a suitable campsite to build before we begin the rescue while the other half stays behind to assess the pond and make sure there are in fact Arapaima still present as this pond has not been checked since the drought period began. We stay back with the assessment team to document the process.

Unlike most fish, the Arapaima uses a modified swim bladder that opens up into the fish’s mouth and acts as a lung making it a surface breather. They come up to the surface for air every 10-20 minutes so to find out how many are in one particular pond takes only about half an hour of observation. This pond seems to have many surviving fish despite the very low water level. Within the first few minutes we notice many fish. They roll along the surface of the water after taking a big gulp of oxygen. It is going to be a successful day!

About an hour passes and the rest of the team returns after setting up camp just up river. One of the other leaders of the team, Nigel John, takes a minute to give us a brief rundown of what is about to happen. Nigel is a well spoken and very intelligent man who has a clear passion for the conservation of the Arapaima species. He truly understands the value of what this species means for his community and how these rescue operations not only preserve the long term economic benefits of fishing tourism but also how they can be used to train younger folks to become more aware of their natural resources.

“We must first assess the pond.” Nigel says. “We look at how long it is. The depth. And the distance towards the river.”

This assessment is crucial because the fish need to be corralled like cattle into a corner of the pond. Team members then use their hands to feel for them. Once the fish are felt below the shallow surface they are held and carefully wrestled with until they get tired. This is a particularly dangerous feat because if an arapaima decides to thrash in resistance, the impact is enough to render a person unconscious. Once it gets tired the team will guide it into a fabricated sling which they will use to carry the fish through the forest to the river.

Before any of this is done, a measurement from the pond to river has to be made. If the journey is too long or the terrain is difficult to traverse with 300lbs of arapaima load then they will not try to move the fish. Putting the fish under prolonged stress to carry it to the river risks killing more Arapaima and is counterintuitive.

However, the journey from this particular pond to the river is relatively straightforward so the team begins clearing a trail using machetes. Within twenty minutes we have a cleared path for transport to take place.

 

We take a minute to acknowledge that this is a once in a lifetime experience to be able to witness the saving of Arapaima deep in the amazon. These are the kind of stories you only read about or see on a National Geographic or Discovery episode, so being the ones documenting it is truly a privilege.

It is time to begin and the whole team lead by Kenny, Campbell and Nigel enter the pond in military formation. What was once loud conversation and back and forth chiming has now turned into a laser focused silence. Whispers shoot across the pond as they begin to see bubbles surface just above their knees. The water is also shallow enough to catch a glimpse of the fiery red tail that skims over the top of the pond. Corralling takes more patience and bravery than you would think. Imagine wading through an opaque body of water in the middle of the forest riddled with lurking creatures beneath. We noticed a few caiman and there was mention of electric eels but we tried to put that thought out of our mind because not fully embracing the job results in poor documentation on our part.

The task intensifies as multiple Arapaima are felt below the surface and the human circle around them begins to close in. Nigel turns to me and says that one is heading in my direction. I remain frozen with my camera in hand but as I am about to respond I feel a gigantic creature slither between my legs. I yell but do not make a sudden movement because if it thrashes I may not make it through the rest of this trip.

At that moment just behind me one Arapaima explodes out the water and the chase begins. Titus, one of the more formidable men on the team, jumps onto the Arapaima’s back and is dragged a few feet under. He resurfaces and smiles as he continues to hang on. They wrestle back and forth. The goal is not to dominate the fish but instead put pressure on its ability to swim away and keep it within the circle. After four to five minutes of a fight the fish is handed off to the next team member who will continue the wrestle. There is continuous thrashing and Kenny takes a blow which stuns him but he recovers well.

The first fish is a monstrous size. Eight feet of muscle and well over 300lbs. The team commits to this fish and they all guide it slowly up the pond where the sling is spread out waiting to be loaded. At this point the fish is tired so it can be easily guided on to the sling. Two pieces of wood cut from the forest are attached and used to lift the sling out of the water after the fish is quickly measured.

The rescue team all band together for the most arduous part of this process. In unison they grab on to the sling, lift the arapaima and march toward the cleared trail towards the river. Four people on each side with two extras waiting to swap out when someone gets too tired. Even though the trail is cleared there is still elevation and obstacles in the way. They manoeuvre expertly around the roadblocks of the jungle shouting words of encouragement to each other.

The effort of these men and women to get the job done is truly something to admire. It is glaringly obvious that this is not their first aquatic rodeo and the years of experience in handling these giants translates clearly into the meticulous nature of their operation.

Once they reach the end there is a steep slope down to the river. This is particularly treacherous because one slip can send both the team and the arapaima tumbling and cause great injury to both parties. However, this is executed to a tee.

The moment the fish touches the river they guide it out of the sling and hold it upright on the surface of the water. Nigel reiterates that the fish is required to take three breaths before they allow it to swim away on its own strength. The arapaima floats gently on the surface in the arms of three caring handlers. In five minute intervals, it lifts its head above the water and gulps a breath of air. On the third gulp the handlers gently remove their arms from underneath, and the mighty giant wiggles its body and gracefully glides away into the depths of the river.

On this particular day we manage to save eight giant arapaimas.

This whole experience is a testament to the undeniable strength, indomitable will and genuine care of the rescue team from Apoteri Village. The tourism industry that attracts visitors from all corners of the globe is not solely attributed to the rich biodiversity that exists in Guyana. It is also carried by the relentless determination of our indigenous peoples who are the stewards of the natural environment. These are the people who have lived on these lands for decades and in the time of Guyana’s rapid shift from the traditional to modern world, they have found a way to sustainably profit through the preservation of their natural resources.

They are continuously fighting to maintain and protect this species that has given them immense benefit to their community through ecotourism and scientific research.

All anglers who traverse these waters in search of the legendary giant that lurks beneath the surface should be appreciative of the guardians who are silently working to enable the population of the giant arapaima to thrive for generations to come.

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2 Comments
  1. habeeb says

    Save the small gilbacka and the ones with eggs also…. conservation will last a lifetime.
    Unless a LIMIT of catch and species are strictly implemented, violators must be heavily
    fined. Paying for ALL fishing licenses, the fees will help in conservation.

    Great jobs…

  2. Kamini Wight says

    It is heartening to know of the efforts of our indigenous peoples to maintain the environment in their specific areas. Thanks go out to Alex Arjoon in documenting as we on the coast land can get and appreciate the efforts of the indigenous tribes.

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