Is there such a thing as the world’s worst animals. From a safe distance we can regard the malevolent animals of the Amazon as a biological miracle and not a flesh eating pestilential horror. In any event, the creatures; flying, swimming, crawling, or walking , make no such distinctions; they are likely to regard us merely as a square meal. ….The Amazon, its creatures and the exploration by Western man has often offered a unique twist to Byron’s observation that truth is stranger than fiction.
“The immensity of the Amazon hits you the moment you set off from Iquitos. The river is maybe half a mile wide at this point – and gets far wider – with the distance occasionally broken by “islands”. Encased by a vast canopy of trees on either side, it’s an awe?inspiring spectacle. As the 19th?century German explorer Baron Alexander von Humboldt said: “Here, in a fertile country, adorned with the eternal verdure, we seek in vain traces of the power of man.” And yet as we learnt more about the surrounding habitat, it was hard not to be angered and amazed at how man has tried – and is still trying – to destroy an area frequently referred to as the lungs of the earth. ( Simon Horsford )
With so many species of fish swimming the Amazon, it is not surprising to find some that are harmful. Among these, by far the most common is the piranha. Perhaps more than any other fish in the world, the piranha personifies greed, savagery, remorselessness, and every other malignant quality. The mind that can accept the idea of being drowned by an alligator, dismembered by a shark, knocked unconscious by an electric eel, or even struck by a poisonous snake may well recoil from the thought of being stripped to the skeleton by a swarm of minute fishes. The alligator can be attacked through its sensitive eyes, and a strong man can easily hold its jaws together, but no one can gouge out a thousand eyes or hold shut a thousand greedy jaws.
The piranha never grows longer than two feet. It is a flat fish, innocuous looking and in the vermilion variety even rather beautiful, until one notices its jaws- powerful, deep set, and slightly retracted- and its razor sharp teeth. A piranha only six inches long can sever a finger or a toe with one chomp. Henry Walter Bates wrote this rather mild account of its habits: ” Piranha, a kind of salmon. Piranhas are of several kinds, many of which abound in the waters of the Tapajos. They are caught with almost any kind of bait, for their taste is indiscriminate and their appetite most ravenous. They often attack the legs of bathers near the shore, inflicting severe wounds with their strong triangular teeth. ”
…Waterton was a British eccentric, whose explorations of British Guyana in the early nineteenth century sometimes smacked of the fantastic. He was widely ridiculed in England for his claim that he had ridden on the back of a ferocious cayman. Maslow tells us that Waterton “was [also] an outstanding field naturalist… [who] could enter into the minds of animals and fathom their intentions and understand their adaptations from excellent firsthand knowledge of their actual behavior”
It is probable that Bates and the other early naturalists rather underestimated the malice of this fish and the dangers of bathing when it was present. Only when they began to be bitten themselves did their accounts of its habits become more sensational. Sir Henry Wickham, who in 1876 exported the rubber seeds from Brazil that were used to start the plantations of the Far East, lost a finger while spitting a piranha that he thought was dead. George Cherrie, an American naturalist, had a narrow escape when he fell into the stream in which he was fishing for piranha. But the reputation of the fish did not reach the general public until 1914, when Theodore Roosevelt’s “Through the Brazilian Wilderness” was published.
“…What led one of us, Winslow, to first embark on that labyrinthine trail was an earlier hoax that contained similar elements. It had been perpetrated by the eccentric English naturalist Charles Waterton many years before Piltdown. In 1825 in Wanderings in South America, Waterton claimed to have come across and killed an apeman, a sketch of which graced the book’s frontispiece. It showed the humanlike face and apelike head and shoulders of the creature, which he called Nondescript. Because of the b
’s burdensome weight, Waterton explained tongue in cheek, he had severed its body and carried only the head and shoulders out of the rain forest and back to England. These he had then preserved using his own unique methods of taxidermy. Anyone doubting the veracity of his tale was welcome to gaze upon this apeman of the woods in the flesh….”
No one since the defeated Disraeli began his novel modeled on the life of Gladstone, can have solved the problems of retirement from high office with more panache than Theodore Roosevelt. When other men would have been writing their memoirs, he plunged into an account of a long African safari instead, displaying an expertise that would have done credit to a professional naturalist.
In 1913, Roosevelt set out on an expedition to South America. Accompanied by Colonel Candido Mariano da Silva Rondon, one of Brazil’s greatest explorers, he traveled overland from Corumba, the capital of mato Grosso, to discover the course of a mysterious river that Rondon had crossed on an earlier journey. Descending the river, the party suffered every kind of hardship. One of their men was drowned, another ran amuck and murdered his sergeant, and Roosevelt’s son Kermit barely escaped from a whirlpool. Continuous rapids blocked their path so that for a full month they were able to average only two miles a day.
“…Waterton actually had taken the head and shoulders of a red howler monkey and shaped its facial features to give it a humanoid appearance. His creation stirred some mirth and some indignation. Another of Waterton’s typical whimsies was to combine the parts of two entirely different animals into a single creature, something one of his biographers categorized as a “taxidermic frolic”. Could there be a connection between Waterton’s ruses and the hoax at Piltdown? Piltdown Man too ended up being a composite creature, a concoction, perhaps even a “frolic”….
Toward the end of the journey, Teddy was struck down by malaria. He lay at the bottom of a dugout canoe, roasted by the sun, soaked by the rain, and tormented by insects, until at last they sailed out into the madeira. The river he discovered was named the Rio Roosevelt, and one of its tributaries the Rio Kermit.
During this expedition, Roosevelt learned much about the piranha. Cherrie and Leo E. Miller, the tow naturalists who accompanied him, had both been bitten by this viscious little fish, and Colonel Rondon had lost a toe while bathing. Another of Rondon’s men had ridden out of camp on a mule, and when it returned alone, the rest of the party retraced its tracks until they found his skeleton, fully vlothed but with every bit of flesh stripped from it. It was impossible to tell whether he had been killed by the piranha or had drowned and then been devoured. Just before Roosevelt’s arrival a boy had been eaten alive at Corumba.
“Ms. Millard explains how a speaking tour for Roosevelt evolved into such a major undertaking. As originally planned, it was to involve 800-pound steel-hulled motorboats, but no thought was given to how these boats could be carried through the jungle. Supplied with all the olive oil, mustard and malted milk they might need, the travelers soon realized that they would have to rethink their modus operandi. They were also unprepared for a rainy climate where, as Roosevelt wrote, “everything became mouldy, except what became rusty.”
Earlier this year, Patricia O’Toole’s “When Trumpets Call,” another book about Roosevelt’s post-White House years, noted that this trip could be well described by nouns: “Bees. Wasps. Blackflies. Rapids. Portage. Termites. Ticks. Mosquitoes.” Also: “Hunger.” “A murder.” “Parrots and monkeys for dinner.”
…The trip impaired Roosevelt’s health and was the start of his undoing. (He died in 1919.) Many other factors contributed to his demise. But Ms. Millard succeeds in taking a broad, humbling view of one man’s place in the natural scheme of things. She juxtaposes Roosevelt’s larger-than-life persona with the rules of the jungle.