Project July 3, 2018

The River Giant Invading the Bolivian Amazon


The River Giant Invading the Bolivian Amazon.
The River Giant Invading the Bolivian Amazon.

When the first paiche appeared in northern Bolivia over thirty years ago, no one knew what to make of the scaled, carnivorous giants. Were they monsters? Did they eat human flesh? Were they the product of some nefarious science experiment? In fact, the invaders were among the oldest and largest freshwater fish on earth and, though threatened by overfishing in their natural habitats in Brazil and Peru, within decades they would expand their range across northern Bolivia's Amazon basin, transforming local economies and upending a fragile ecosystem.

Today, the paiche represents as much as 85 percentĀ of all fish extracted in the river port of Riberalta, the most important fishery in this poor, landlocked nation. As the paiche expands its range into new communities and protected areas at a rate of 30km per year, it colonizes the breeding grounds of native species and consumes their young. Growing demand for fish has meant more families turning to the rivers for a new source of income, but also increasing pressure on the same native species that the paiche may be driving toward extinction. Because paiche officially remains a threatened species, Bolivia's wild-caught specimens can't be exported, yet neither local infrastructure nor markets can support the amount of paiche coming out of Bolivia's rivers.

For years, this environmental calamity has been facilitated by weak regulation, economic desperation, hydroelectric projects, contraband, and even conservation policy itself. As Bolivia finally passes laws to control the animal's population, the question is whether balance can still be struck between controlling change in this remote ecosystem and the economic need of the people who call it home.