Leaping Caimans and Tasty Piranha in the Wild Amazon

Still, the trip was not about what happened on the boat, but what happened off it. One night, after a dinner of hearty tucunaré soup — hunks of tender white fish, hard-boiled eggs and potato chunks in broth — Nigel herded us into a small, canoe-like motorboat and set off down the pitch-black river. He scanned the riverbank with a powerful headlamp, waiting to spot double red dots that meant animal eyes were watching — poking their heads out of the water, staring at us from land or, should we be lucky enough to see a sloth, from a tree.

Spotting caimans — alligators’ South American cousins — Nigel headed toward the river’s edge, where brush and trees poked out of the water. He grabbed a Y-shaped branch from a tree, and spent a few minutes carving grooves into the wood and stringing a cord through them as we watched, wondering what he was doing. The result looked like a slingshot but was actually more like a noose.

We were all thinking the same thing: This guy is insane. The boat poked into the brush, Nigel hanging over the edge. Then, thrashing sounds, a dramatic pause, and there was Nigel, gently but firmly holding a small speckled caiman, maybe two feet long, by the neck, its scales glistening in our flashlight beams.

“No way,” said Adam. “You caught him with that stick thing?”

“With my hand,” Nigel replied, explaining this was a young one, nine months or so, and too small for his trap. It was a male, Nigel told us, probably one of three or four survivors out of a brood of 60 or so. To allay our concerns that we were being cruel, he explained he was using techniques approved by government environmental authorities to both capture and hold him. He also noted that caimans could handle a little stress. They were hardly a brotherly and sisterly bunch: The one he held around the neck by his thumb and forefinger had probably eaten several of his siblings. “They’re born to kill or to be eaten,” he said. “Anyone want to try to hold it?”

I volunteered.

“He’s a little fighter,” Nigel warned.

“No problem, so am I,” I replied, an utter lie.

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