The Greeks spoke of Charon, a boatman who would ferry the dead across the mythical river Styx. A species of catfish in South Asia has developed a similar reputation. Of taking the dead. Not to transport them to to the Underworld. But to consume their flesh. I am speaking of the Goonch (Bagarius yarrelli). Found in the fast flowing waters of South and South East Asian rivers, it belongs to the genus Bagarius of the family Sisoridae. The Sisoridae are an Asian group that have evolved to inhabit fast flowing waters. They have adaptations to hold on to the substrate. The genus contains four extant species and an extinct one (from Sumatra, Indonesia).

The Goonch acquired notoriety after a series of attacks on people (those who where alive, not dead) in villages along the Kali River (on the Indo-Nepal border) between 1998 and 2007. The Kali (also known as the Sharada, Mahakali and Kali Gad) is a sizable tributary of the Ganges that originates in the Himalayas. The Goonch (or Giant Devil Catfish) in this river are said to have developed a taste for human flesh having fed off corpses disposed in the river (a practice that is part of the local community’s funeral rites). Soon, the catfish switched from the dead to the living. Young boys swimming in the cold waters of the Kali were taken down by hungry Goonch lurking in the depths.

Goonch can grow very large, reaching lengths of 2 m and weighing as much as 135 kg (attributed to a specimen caught in the Krishna River in Karnataka, a state in South India). The species is known as Kurudi in Kannada and Baghair in Bengali. They are said to live among the large boulders scattered on the bed of torrential streams and rivers. Prawns, aquatic insects and smaller fish form the natural prey base of the Giant Devil Catfish. The stories were widely reported and became part of the Animal Planet series ‘River Monsters’ (featuring the British angler, Jeremy Wade). The huge size they achieve certainly makes them capable of being a threat to children and small livestock.

Image Attribution: The image above, sourced from Wikimedia Commons, shows an illustration of the Goonch from ‘Transactions of the Zoological Society of London, Volume 2′ (dating back to 1839). This particular painting was done by J. Swaine.

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