by Whit Gibbons

April 15, 2012

Should we be afraid of the goonch? Perhaps if you knew it by one of its other names--giant devil catfish or man-eating killer catfish--you might be more concerned, especially if you were swimming where it lives in the Kali River in India. A 150-pound fish over six feet long that is said to eat anything that doesn't eat it first might indeed decide a human would be tasty.

Reportedly, in the 1990s a person died after being attacked by a large goonch in the river. By the end of 2008, three more deaths were said to have occurred, including one of a teenager who was dragged underwater and drowned. Adding to the fish lore is the suggestion that some goonches have gotten "a taste for human flesh" by eating "half-burnt corpses discarded from funeral pyres along the river banks." Sounds like a fish to take heed of. Time to call in Jeremy Wade, star of Animal Planet's "River Monsters."

Reports of deaths by a man-killing river creature are just the beginning for Jeremy Wade. He not only investigates the reports but also goes to the site and catches the culprits. He may not catch the individual that made the attack, but he does reel in a colossal specimen that could have been responsible. Attesting to the fact that he gets the big ones are photos of him with a giant catfish that is longer than he and two helpers sitting side by side are wide. To capture the mighty goonch he had to jump into the river to keep it from escaping.

In a telephone conversation with Jeremy last week I asked why he does what he does. I liked his answer. He noted that when a person fears an animal two common responses are to hide from it or to destroy it. He advocates a different approach: learn about the creature so you can appreciate it. This is certainly better from a conservation perspective; I think it's better for the person too. Jeremy is well schooled in ecology, rivers, and conservation, and his objective is to teach people about animals with which they are unfamiliar because you "can't care about what you don't know about." He delivers ecological lessons with a fine mix of suspense-filled entertainment, environmental teachings, and a lot of experience with catching fish. He says one of his goals is to reach children of all ages because "they really get into strange names and obscure facts" and become an ideal audience for conservation messages.

Jeremy likens his role in revealing both truths and misinformation about river animals as one of a detective. He hears of victims and of witnesses who provide information that leads to a suspect. He then tracks down the culprit and usually catches it. The difference he says is that instead of convicting and executing the perpetrator, he tries to understand its ecology and behavior, and teach others about it. He then releases his catch back into the river.

The show can be filmed anywhere in the world. The choice of which river to go to is based in part on some graphic story told by people of a particular region about attacks on or deaths of humans from a "river monster." Some of the classic extreme angling adventures in the weekly "River Monsters" series have been goliath tigerfish and river bullsharks of Africa, rare Fitzroy River sharks of Australia, and a six-foot-long arapaima in South America. He has even followed up on river monster reports in Florida and Missouri.

During our conversation, Jeremy Wade talked about why people should care about this enormous catfish. And I, for one, certainly wish the best for it ecologically. When we understand the ecology of a species and can identify the boundaries of safety in dealing with it, we can avoid letting fear control us. With that in mind, my environmental safety take-home message is that swimming in India's Kali River where the big goonches live may be hazardous to your health.

If you have an environmental question or comment, email

(Back to Ecoviews)