Legends and myths in the Juruena river region | WWF
Legends and myths in the Juruena river region

Posted on 23 June 2006

Incredible stories about man-eating fish, “vertigo” caused by the forest, ferocious jaguars, and mythic monsters spark the imagination of local inhabitants in Pontal do Apiacás.

Incredible stories about man-eating fish, “vertigo” caused by the forest, ferocious jaguars, and mythic monsters spark the imagination of local inhabitants in Pontal do Apiacás. The legends and myths surrounding the beauties in the confluence of the Juruena and the Teles Pires Rivers – along the border of the states of Amazonas, Mato Grosso and Pará –, are yet additional surprises in this region.

“Beware of the forest: some people who go there come back with a screw loose,” is the warning the inhabitants along the river banks make to new visitors. But the rumour that the forest can drive people mad seems to be just a way of warding off rogue loggers, gold prospectors, and hunters.

Another extremely popular champion of the forest that comes up in excited conversations in the region is mapinguari. It is usually described as an over two meter tall, furry animal with gigantic claws and huge fangs that loves feeding on ‘hunters’. The legend has it that this feared beast attacks during the day and emits sounds like those produced by sapupemas (Chimarrhis turbinata), which are typical trees used for communication purposes inside the jungle to bewilder and lure people.

Many swear they have seen the beast, and some claim they even fought with it. Such reports are so common among river bank inhabitants and rubber tappers that a team of researchers from Pará's Emílio Goeldi Museum even organized an expedition in the Amazon in search of the animal.

The scientists suspected that mapinguari could be a gigantic sloth (Megatherium america), a species considered to be extinct for thousands of years that possibly hid in the forest. Some footprints and marks on trees were recorded, many rumours went around, but no real evidence was ever found. Despite scientific uncertainties, the monster continues to be quite real in the imagination of locals in Pontal do Apiacás. And nobody dares going into the jungle alone to hunt or fish.

Many indigenous peoples also fear this monster. They say that a spell turned an old pajé (healer) into mapinguari to protect nature from its violators. Some anthropologists believe that the source of this legend is similar to that of another champion of the forest: curupira, the famous young, red-haired Indian with backward feet who is always scaring hunters.

While on the upland forest mapinguari is the one who terrifies people, in Juruena’s deep and mysterious waters the piraíbas (Brachyplathystoma filamentosum) are the source of the most astonishing "causos" (folk stories). This fish is one of the biggest freshwater species in the world, and this is why it is called the “shark of rivers”. An adult piraíba may be over two meters long and can weigh as much as 300 kilos and. To give you an idea of how big this species is, it is enough to say that individuals weighing up to 60 kilos are still considered as "fry" of the fish.

This leather-like fish is typically found in the depths of river banks but, differently from the jaú catfish (Paulicea lutkeni or Zungaro zungaro), it is not commonly found in wells or stone holes. And the Juruena River, with its clear and flowing waters, is one of its favourite habitats in the Amazon.

You won’t easily find riverine inhabitants who do not have some story to tell about the piraíba. After all, a fish this big is the perfect character for fishermen stories. However, although it is reputed to be able to swallow an adult human being, there is a consensus among researchers that the piraíba is much more a victim of men’s actions than it is the bad guy. Its populations have been shrinking more and more due to destruction of riparian forests and pollution of rivers. Because of this, it is increasingly difficult to catch large-sized individuals.

Jaguars (Panthera onca) deserve a chapter of their own in the woods of the Juruena River, and their protection by the forest is one of very few certainties here. In the 1960s, when their hides could be freely traded, Pontal do Apiacás was one of the favourite places for hunters of these cats. Some locals still conceal huge “costumes” in their homes (this is what they call the so coveted hides).

Because their hunting is now banned, jaguars are one of the many species that seek shelter in the Juruena National Park, and, also because of the huge diversity and beauty of its landscapes, this park is one of the single most important protected areas in Brazil.

Tumucumaque NP is home to many endangered species, including jaguars.
© WWF-Brazil / E. Parker