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 yuca, 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 Marañon 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 scaled freshwater fish. 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

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 Bretaña 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 Bretaña.

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.
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
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

Paiche Poachers
Anyone interested in an adventure in Pacaya Samiria National Reserve
contact us to arrange the details.  The paiche poacher cruise
was one of a kind, but your adventure will be just as interesting.

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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
Our Adventure Apprehending Paiche Poachers
in Pacaya Samiria National Reserve
Here we will kill each other
Make sure I do not see you tomorrow
Beto with confiscated paiche

Paiche Poachers

fishing from Dawn on the Amazon I
Paiche poachers in Pacaya Samiria National Reserve
Paiche poachers in Pacaya Samiria National Reserve
Beto with confiscated paiche
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