Thursday, June 30, 2005

Let Sleeping Serpents Lie

An old joke describes a New Yorker proudly presenting the awesome, roaring Niagara Falls to a visiting Texan. The Texan, starting with a chuckle, soon was into a full-bellied guffaw.

"What's so funny?" demanded the indignant New Yorker.

"Well looky here!" drawled the Southerner, "We got a plumber down in Texas that'd fix this leak in five minutes!"

So goes a number of "Texan" jokes that poke fun at the stereotypical Texan who thinks everything is bigger or better in the Lone Star State.

When it comes to the flora and fauna of Thailand, I'm beginning to feel like the Texan. The lush, prolific, and gigantic representations of the animal and plant kingdoms here continue to leave me awestruck. Some of our flowering trees look like 100-ft bouquets straight from the florist. Some of these wild orchids would be just too big to pin to your mom's Sunday morning outfit for Mother's Day. The dragon flies should be honored as a special division of the Royal Thai Airforce. And, you really haven't jumped high until you've felt a one-inch-long red ant scurrying across your bare foot. Among the flowers, green leafy plants, insects, and reptiles which all come Super-Sized, there's the bigger-than-normal-life aquatic creatures.

When I first visited the Mekhong River, bordering Thailand and Laos, I chuckled at what I assumed was a doctored picture of a "sea serpent" caught in the river by US Marines several decades ago during the Vietnam War. The picture hangs on many a souvenir shop wall at open air markets along the Mekhong.

However, in the last couple years I've been coming across more stories and news reports about truly mammoth creatures that inhabit these waters. Last week, Time-Asia magazine had a startling picture of a captured alligator which dwarfed a pickup truck over which it was draped, bound and snout-taped. The 30-ft (10-meter) 'gator looked like something out of a horror flick. Prior to its capture, it had eaten 27 hapless human beings over the years! Then there's the Mekhong catfish. Now there's nothing uglier than a wide-mouthed, beady-eyed, whiskered catfish, no matter where he hails from. But there's something REALLY ugly about one that is big enough to eat you. Hence, today's story from on-line Associated Press . . .


Thursday June 30, 7:18 PM (AP)

Thai fishermen catch world's largest freshwater fish

Thai fishermen caught a 293-kilogram (646-pound) catfish believed to have been the world's largest freshwater fish ever recorded, a researcher said Thursday.

The 2.7 meter- (8.9 feet) Mekong giant catfish was netted May 1 by villagers in Chiang Khong, a remote district in northern Thailand, and weighed by Thai fisheries department officials, said Zeb Hogan, who leads an international project to locate and study the world's largest freshwater fish species.

He confirmed it was the heaviest recorded fish since Thailand started keeping records in 1981.

"This is the largest individual fish of the species that's listed as the biggest in the Guinness Book of World Records," he told The Associated Press by telephone.

The fishermen had hoped to sell the fish to environmental groups, which planned to release it to spawn upriver, but it died before it could be handed over, and was later chopped up and sold in pieces to villagers to be eaten.


The surrounding exotic wildlife plays with my imagination, as well.

The grass on the little plot of land next to my duplex is reaching for the sky due to two factors: rainy season and my disinclination to break into a sweat trying to remove it. It took only a month to go from shoe-height to chest-deep. As I glanced out at the patch through my kitchen window last week, I caught an ominous sight. It was just on the edge of the grass jungle. Near the top of a tall tuft of grass I saw an unmistakable serpent's mouth slowly opening and closing--like he was sort of yawning. It was a big, ugly, dark mouth. I thought I could see flashes of red which must have been that evil darting forked tongue. Horrified, I tried to determine if it had a hood behind its head. I was remembering that Isan has the world's largest concentration of hooded King Cobras. Hypnotically, the yawning mouth pivoted back and forth, slowly opening and closing. It was almost like he was trying to taste the air, to see which direction live prey might be. I shuddered, despite watching behind my iron-barred, mosquito-screened window.

Then, before my disbelieving eyes, the dreaded mouth and head made a full 360-degree pivot (a la "The Exorcist"). Incongruously, it then disconnected from the neck, and gently fluttered away on the tropical breeze wafting through my weed-patch. It was only when the "serpent mouth" was in full flight did I realize I had been watching a rather large black and red butterfly sunning itself on my weeds. While stationary, the slow flexing of its wings had me convinced I was watching a loathesome snake-head on the lookout. Oh my, time to see a shrink.

With the recent reports from the Mekhong, now I've got something else to worry about. Over the last two years I've had occasion to go down to the water's edge at this mighty river, a couple of times dipping my fingers or toes into the warm muddy current. Now, my news and picture-poisoned imagination makes me think twice before doing so. That second thought advises, "Why not just let those behemoths live in peace, undisturbed?"

Or, like those Thai villagers, I will opt to meet my catfish in a skillet. Thank you.