All rights reserved. The Asian arowana, also known as the dragon fish, is believed by the Chinese to bring good luck and prosperity due to its red color and coin-like scales. One woman risked terrorists, headhunters, and the 'fish mafia' to see an Asian arowana in the wild. Traveling to 15 countries, she braved headhunters and civil war to follow the trail of a fish that is often transported under armed guard. When National Geographic caught up with her by phone at her home in New York, she explained how a well-meaning conservation effort to protect the arowana paradoxically increased its attractiveness to collectors; how her search for the arowana took over her life; and why putting a fish in a tank is part of our innate desire to connect with other species.
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All rights reserved. The Asian arowana, also known as the dragon fish, is believed by the Chinese to bring good luck and prosperity due to its red color and coin-like scales. One woman risked terrorists, headhunters, and the 'fish mafia' to see an Asian arowana in the wild. Traveling to 15 countries, she braved headhunters and civil war to follow the trail of a fish that is often transported under armed guard.
When National Geographic caught up with her by phone at her home in New York, she explained how a well-meaning conservation effort to protect the arowana paradoxically increased its attractiveness to collectors; how her search for the arowana took over her life; and why putting a fish in a tank is part of our innate desire to connect with other species. At the center of your story is a fish most of us aren't familiar with.
Tell us about the arowana—aka the dragon fish—and why it has become so valuable. It is a tropical freshwater fish from Southeast Asia that grows three feet long in the wild. That resemblance has spawned the belief that the fish brings good luck and prosperity, which is why it has become a highly sought-after aquarium fish.
When I attended the Aquarama International Fish Competition , which is a bit like the Westminster dog show for fish, these 10 rare, albino arowana showed up with a police motorcade, protected by armed guards, to prevent anyone adding poison to the tanks.
This took me a while to understand. It is illegal to import arowana into the U. The farms in Southeast Asia where they are produced are like high-security prisons with concrete walls protected by guard dogs, watchtowers, and barbed wire.
All for a fish! Only a few Asian arawana survive in the wild, deep in the jungles of Borneo. The history of this one single fish encapsulates the history of modern conservation. In the s, when the international community began to organize around the idea of protecting endangered species, the impulse was to ban [the trade in] everything.
This is what happened with the Asian arowana. Back then it was just an ordinary food fish, something people were eating for dinner in the swamp. But it is an apex predator and a slow-reproducing fish, so it ended up on this list of protected species and was banned from international trade.
That backfired, though, because it created the perception of rarity, which spawned a market for this fish in the aquarium trade. It became a hot commodity. Your journey begins in an unlikely place—the Bronx. John Fitzpatrick , pet detective! I was doing a story on the exotic pet trade in New York City and called him up one summer afternoon. I accompanied Fitzpatrick up to the South Bronx because a man had been trying to sell his alligator on Craigslist.
At first, I was not interested. I am not a fish person. I thought of pet fish as a boring subject. Then I started digging into it deeper. This was a central mystery for me. Not just why the Asian arowana was so incredibly valuable, but what compels us to put a fish in a bowl in the first place? It touches on what E. Wilson wrote about biophilia, our innate desire to connect with other animals.
I never felt compelled to keep an arowana myself, but I did become obsessed with finding the fish in the wild.
It overturned my life for a number of years. I traveled through 15 countries in pursuit of this fish. That obsession came from the same place as the drive to keep aquarium fish. It was a desire to connect with the wild. Introduce us to Kenny the Fish. He is the kingpin at the center of the glamorous world of Asian aquaculture. He is the owner of one of the largest ornamental fish farms in Asia and notorious in Singapore for posing nude behind intricately placed aquatic pets.
Kenny "the Fish" Yap, shown here swimming in one of his breeding ponds, is "the kingpin at the center of the glamorous world of Asian aquaculture," says author Emily Voigt. Kenny is responsible for the sexy makeover of that industry and is beloved for that reason. I had heard a lot about the dark underbelly of this trade. Stealing a fish is not as easy as stealing a piece of jewelry.
Another key character in the story is an American ichthyologist named Tyson Roberts. Tell us a bit of his life story. His mind is extraordinary. He is now in his mids but still travels all over the globe. In a way, he is an endangered species himself.
Up to the middle of the 20th century, biologists used to specialize in one animal group. You had people who studied fish or birds or earthworms.
But after the molecular revolution and the discovery of the structure of DNA, biology began to be sliced in a different way. Molecular biology came to monopolize funding, while experts on groups of organisms were gradually pushed out.
When the current generation dies, there will be no experts left for many groups of organisms. Describe your misadventures trying to reach the remote lake of Sentarum. At the end of that, I cancelled my flight home from Asia and risked missing my own wedding reception because I was so determined to get to this fish in the heart of Borneo.
I was warned of a trifecta of bogeymen: a supposed fish mafia, Islamic terrorists, and the Iban, who inhabit the lake region and are traditionally headhunters. Heiko Bleher, known as "the Indiana Jones of the tropical fish world," travels the world in search of new fish species.
I was probably one of the least well-equipped people to go find a fish on my own, much less the elusive arowana. I had never been fishing a day in my life. His grandfather started one of the first ornamental fish farms outside Frankfurt at the turn of the 20th century.
Ever since, Heiko has spent his life in the manic pursuit of new species across the globe. I did eventually manage to get to Sentarum. Unfortunately, it was the worst time of the year. The lake system drains seasonally. Yeah, I think I was. There is something dangerous about fetishizing a fish: placing a species on a pedestal, trying to own it, and hold it up as an iconic species. My own quest, as well-meaning as it was, took over my life. The first sign of trouble was when I changed my name to get into Myanmar.
At that point, I should have realized that maybe I was getting in too deep. Mine is not the only life to have been corrupted by this fish, either. While I was reporting, someone in New York ended up in a high-security prison for his involvement with the fish. You think of a pet fish as this innocent thing, a reminder of childhood. But the Asian arowana is an agent of chaos throughout the world.
You traveled to 15 countries in search of the arowana, by plane, jeep, and canoe. What were the best—and worst—moments of that quest? One of my lowest points came in Myanmar formerly Burma when I found myself sneaking into a closed-off war zone in pursuit of the fish.
That was pretty nerve-racking. In terms of the awe it inspires, nothing could beat the Amazon rain forest. This was my first time in South America, and I found myself days from civilization in the jungle.
The Amazon Basin is the same size as the continental U. Simon Worrall curates Book Talk. Follow him on Twitter or at simonworrallauthor. Read Caption. Meet the World's Most Expensive Pet Fish One woman risked terrorists, headhunters, and the 'fish mafia' to see an Asian arowana in the wild.
By Simon Worrall. Courtesy of Qian Hu Corporation. Photograph by Emily Voigt. This interview was edited for length and clarity. Continue Reading.
The Asian arowana Scleropages formosus comprises several phenotypic varieties of freshwater fish distributed geographically across Southeast Asia. They have several other common names, including Asian bonytongue , dragonfish , and a number of names specific to the different color varieties. Native to Southeast Asia , Asian arowanas inhabit blackwater rivers , slow-moving waters flowing through forested swamps and wetlands. Adults feed on other fish, while juveniles feed on insects. These popular aquarium fish have special cultural significance in areas influenced by Chinese culture. The name 'dragonfish' stems from their resemblance to the Chinese dragon.
Silver Arowana: Care Guide, Tank Size, Diet and More…
Renowned for its hunting ability and large size, this fish is one of the most iconic around and will be the prized possession of any hobby aquarist. Your Free Little Extra: Download our free Silver Arowana ebook which covers everything from their natural habitat to their diet. Also known as the Dragon Fish, Monkey Fish, and occasionally misspelt as Arawana and Arahuana, this fish is adored by many hobby aquarists. Arowana are strong powerful swimmers, and can be fairly aggressive at times. They are a predator fish that can grow up to 4 foot in size and weigh in excess of 6kg. When raised in captivity you should expect an Arowana to have a lifespan of years.
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