Kali River Goonch Attacks

Three separate fatal attacks on swimmers and bathers in a small stretch of the Kali River in India and Nepal left initial investigators puzzled as to the culprit. The first attack took place in April 1998, when 17-year old Dil Bahadur was dragged underwater when swimming in the river. Several eyewitnesses, including his girlfriend, reported that he had simply vanished beneath the surface and failed to re-emerge, with little evidence of a struggle or disturbance in the water. An extensive search along a three mile stretch of the river found no trace of the young man.

Three months later, a local boy was dragged into the water, too quickly for his father, who was standing nearby, to intervene. Again, no remains were found despite an extensive search. The final attack didn’t take place until nine years later, in 2007, when an 18-year old Nepali man was dragged underwater and disappeared close to the same stretch of river. This time, witnesses had a brief glimpse of the attacker, describing it as resembling an ‘elongated pig’.

British angler Jeremy Wade. Image: David Shankbone

The mysterious attacks were investigated by British biologist and professional angler Jeremy Wade, host of the Discovery series River Monsters. Wade later stated that his visit to India in 2005 where he first heard of the disappearances were the inspiration for the TV series. Returning to the Kali river in 2009, Wade set out to investigate the section of river where the three disappearances had taken place for clues, focusing particularly on the site of the first attack. An echo sounder discounted the possibility of a whirlpool or eddy being responsible for Bahadur being dragged underwater, as the bottom of the river was relatively flat and calm. 

The most obvious answer was that a crocodile was responsible, particularly given that India is home to three distinct species, two of which have been known to attack people on occasion. However, saltwater crocodiles were not known to venture so far inland, while the cold water of the northern Kali river did not provide a suitable habitat for India’s other known maneater, the mugger crocodile. The third species, the gharial, are unable to tackle larger prey, including humans, due to their unusual jaw structure, highly specialised for catching fish. A bull shark was also briefly considered as a possible suspect, but there were no reports of sightings in that stretch of the Kali River.

A goonch catfish. Image: UNR Global Water Centre

During underwater investigations, several large goonch catfish were sighted, including six which were at least the size of a man. Also known as the Giant Devil Catfish, goonch are found in rivers throughout South Asia and have been recording reaching sizes of up to two metres in length.

Discussions with villagers lead to Wade theorising that a particularly large goonch had developed a taste for human flesh after feeding on partially burnt human remains discarded from traditional funeral pyres on the river banks. This plentiful supply of easy food may have also contributed to an individual reaching a particularly large size. After setting up a dummy funeral pyre to draw in the animal, Wade successfully hooked and caught a large goonch, later weighing in at around 160lbs (73kg). While it remained questionable that an individual of that size would have been able to take a human adult, Wade believed that it was at least large enough to eat a child, and that larger specimens may well reside in the river. 

Feature Image: Jeremy Wade and two local guides pose with a 74kg Goonch Catfish. Image: Animal Planet

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