Robert Henderson's picture

Slitherin 1

We visited the Nyerere National Park in Tanzania in November, 2023. Our visit coincided with the first heavy rains at the end of the dry season. The muddy ground near the Rufigi River was literally covered with Sharptooth Catfish (Clarias gariepinus) that had just emerged from the underground chambers where they remain buried during the dry months. The catfish were slithering over the surface trying to find their way to the deeper channels. You could literally not walk on the mud without stepping on catfish, or the foot-long Helmeted Turtles (AKA Marsh Terrapins) that were looking for fish small enough to eat.

Most of the catfish were 24 - 28 inches long. They are endemic to East Africa, but have been introduced all over the world for the purposes of farming. They eat almost anything, and are able to live in almost any body of water larger than a puddle. They also have large accessory breathing organs that let them crawl on dry ground to escape drying pools.

In previous years the area had been part of a shallow lake connected to the Rufigi River. But that changed as the river was diverted to filling the reservoir behind the Julius Nyerere hydroelectric dam. The river was a lot further off than it used to be.

It was a feeding frenzy for the Marabou and Yellow Bill storks and Fish Eagles in the area as the catfish slithered their way to deeper water. The raptors were so full they were just watching the massive numbers of catfish wiggle by.

In a dense group the catfish were not very photogenic, but individually, with their four sets of long, constantly flailing barbels, they looked like something H. P. Lovecraft cooked up as they writhed their way over the sandy mud.

Our guide, who had twenty plus years of experience in the area, told us he'd never seen anything like it. Timing is everything!

I took the image with a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon 200-400 F4L IS USM 1.4 EXT lens, f4, 1/1600 sec, 1250 ISO, 200 mm, handheld.

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Excellent photo and story presentation...evolution is so unique, that I consider it to be a realistic form of religion.

Hi Matthias,

Many thanks for your kind words.

There is even more to the catfish story from our trip last November.

After we left Nyerere National Park we headed for a remote section of the Ruaha National Park. There is only one camp in the area (Usangu) and it is positioned more as a research camp rather than as a typical "safari" camp.

The Usangu reserve has only just been added to the Ruaha Park. Until recently there was no way for outside visitors to even access the area. During the wet season the whole area turns into a vast complex of marsh and shallow lakes. During the dry season the area is a dry floodplain covered with tinder dry grass. The only water left is in small ponds dotting the savanna,(or should be).

Unfortunately, they have a serious problem in the area with poachers. The poachers are not after ivory or endangered animals, they are after catfish. The poachers open up the small ponds, clean out the grass and reeds and create larger lagoons where the catfish accumulate in prolific numbers. The poachers pull literally tons of catfish out of fish traps they set in the lagoons. But that's not the most urgent problem.

It is a rough, daylong trip on a dirt-bike motorcycle to get from the park to the nearest town where they can sell the fish. They smoke the fish in pits they dig in the dry ground next to the ponds. The firewood comes from chopping down the trees in the area, but that's still not the worst. During the dry season the smoking pits invariably start brush fires. The fires continue to grow until the autumn rains finally put them out.

During our visit last November the rains were late, and much of the Usangu reserve area was burned over by a massive fire we watched getting bigger every day. The brush fires are very hard on the immense herds of antelope that live in the area, as well as the predators. It's also hard on the local Maasai People who graze their cattle in the area.

The poachers make hundreds of dollars per night catching and smoking the fish, while the fine if they are caught is trivial by comparison. In the long run it's the local people who will need to keep this from happening. Attitudes are changing, but there is a very long way to go.

Thanks again!

Bob Henderson