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Catfish Hunters

Step into the world of writers and photographers as they tell you about the best, worst, and quirkiest places and adventures they encountered in the field.

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Guyana River

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Catfish Hunters

By Fen MontaignePhotographs by Randy Olson



Scientists surveying Guyana’s rivers find fish species healthy for now, but waters run brown from mining.



Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

The expedition began in earnest at Rockstone, a tiny outpost hacked out of the rain forest on the Essequibo River. As we approached the landing on a jungle-lined dirt road, scattering clouds of yellow and chartreuse butterflies, we saw a group of more than a dozen women and children, dressed in long skirts and colorful blouses. They piled into an old wooden boat and, eight dugout canoes in tow, headed upstream, where they would spend two days catching piranha, catfish, arawana, and angelfish for the international aquarium trade.

The next morning our team of eight (six Americans, an Englishman, and a Guyanese) got into a small motorboat and explored a canal off the Essequibo. Thick white clouds drifted across the sky, occasionally blocking a sun so hot that the mere act of sitting induced a shirt-soaking sweat. Red and green kingfishers shot in front of our wooden boat. Iridescent hummingbirds hovered over the cove. As we drifted into a fetid lagoon clogged with dead trees, a snake skittered across the water. Armbruster pronounced conditions perfect. He was the first over the side.

The biologists engaged in a hogging frenzy, probing half-submerged logs. Michael Hardman, a 24-year-old British Ph.D. student at the University of Illinois, was the first casualty. “Ohhhhh, @#@#!” he screamed. Wading through the hot, chest-deep water, he had placed his hand on a submerged spiny palm, and a half dozen of its black needles had broken off in his hand. But his suffering was not in vain: A few minutes later the team hoisted a ten-foot (3 meter) hollow log containing so many fish it rattled like a maraca.

Armbruster was into the log up to his shoulder when he grabbed a fish that took a liking to his hand. “What is that?” he hollered. “My fingers are meat.”

In rapid succession the scientists extracted a tetra, a rare nine-inch (23 centimeter) catfish, and a spiny catfish oozing a milky poison from its skin. The U.S. and Canada contain approximately 40 species of catfish. South America has about 1,200 different catfish species, roughly half the world’s total. In Guyana alone there may be as many as 300.

It was late October, ostensibly the dry season. That afternoon it poured, flooding our tents. “Dry season,” we were discovering, was a cruel misnomer. As Jason Knouft, also a Ph.D. candidate at Illinois, put it, “There is no dry here, just different degrees of damp.”

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More to Explore

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Did You Know?
Amerindians were the original inhabitants of Guyana but today make up only 6 percent of the population. There are nine tribes left, working to keep their culture and traditional way of life alive. Because most of their reservations aren’t demarcated, their land is often given to foresters, miners, resort developers, or conservation groups. In order to protect their rights and cultures and to grow economically, the tribes have formed several associations to connect their people with Guyana’s central government. At the local level the organizations hold training workshops, record their history, and help the communities deal with issues affecting them. At the national level they lobby the government to be included in the formulation of policies that affect Amerindians. Some of these organizations also work to protect the rights of indigenous people throughout the world.

—Marisa Larson

Did You Know?

Related Links
World Resources Institute
www.wri.org/wri/biodiv/guyana/pwp-home.html
Discover how the people of Guyana can profit from the utilization of their rain forest without it being plundered.

The Guyana Story
www.guyanaca.com/features/guyanastory/guyana_story.html
Read this collection of short essays to learn more about the rich heritage of the people of Guyana.

Catfish Basics
www.thecontentwell.com/Fish_Game/Catfish/Catfish_Basics.html
Learn what makes a fish a catfish.

Guyana and the Environment
www.sdnp.org.gy/gallery/mm/index.html
Find out about Guyana’s environment and what is being done to keep it from being exploited.

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Bibliography
Burnett, D. Graham. Masters of All They Surveyed: Exploration, Geography, and a British El Dorado. University of Chicago Press, 2000.

Eigenmann, Carl. The Freshwater Fishes of British Guiana, Including a Study of the Ecological Grouping of Species, and the Relation of the Fauna of the Plateau to that of the Lowlands. Carnegie Institute, 1912.

Jermyn, Leslie. Cultures of the World: Guyana. Marshall Cavendish, 2000.

Nelson, Joseph. Fishes of the World, 3rd ed. John Wiley and Sons, Inc., 1994.

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NGS Resources
Idyll, Clarence P. “New Florida Resident, the Walking Catfish,” National Geographic (June 1969), 846-851.

Crampton, Henry Edward. “Kaieteur and Roraima: The Great Falls and the Great Mountain of the Guianas,” National Geographic (September 1920), 227-244.

Kennedy, Leonard. “The World’s Greatest Waterfall: The Kaieteur Fall, in British Guiana,” National Geographic (September 1911), 846-859.

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