by Alan Marshall, Mahidol University
The pla beuk is a beautiful behemoth; a gigantic toothless catfish with skin smooth and silky to the touch.
It’s the largest freshwater fish in the world and, once upon a time, these fish swam the great lengths of the mighty Mekong River from southern China, through Burma, Laos, Thailand, and Cambodia, all the way to the river’s delta in Vietnam.
Now, there are maybe only a few hundred adult specimens still living, hidden in isolated deep pools in a few relatively undisturbed places along the river.
If you wish to catch a glimpse of one, the best bet is to cast your eyes about the murals of the Mekong’s resorts, restaurants and riverside temples, where they’re often painted in a serene satiny blue.
In folklore, pla beuk was once revered throughout the Mekong basin and those who sought to capture one for eating in days gone by would often perform special rituals and offerings before heading out to fish for it.
The traditional way to claim the life of a pla beuk was to go out in a wooden boat and throw a homemade spear or fibrous net laden with rocks at each corner. But now China wants to kill them another away – with bombs.
“Who would bomb a catfish?” I expect you’re asking.
On May 14, the Chinese Government launched its Silk Road Project to develop trade routes across the lands of Central Asia to Europe as well as sea routes across Asian seas.
But China’s vision of Asian trade routes is not without its own bombs. The company charged with developing a trade route along the Mekong River (the state-owned Chinese Communications Construction Company) is set to dynamite river islands on a 900-kilometre section of the river that passes from the Chinese province of Yunnan through to the river port of Luang Prabang in Laos.