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Thursday, July 21, 2016

Book Review: The Dragon Behind the Glass

“No one could decide how to think of the Asian arowana anymore – as a precious mythical object or a mass-produced commodity or a dangerous invasive.  Only one thing was clear: it was no longer just a fish.”

In public aquariums across the world, a recurring exhibit gallery is the Amazon River.  This isn’t surprising, as the Amazon is home to many of the world’s most remarkable freshwater fish, a rogue’s gallery of which can be found at many institutions.  They include the arapaima, the red-bellied piranha, the pacu, the redtail catfish… and the silver arowana.  To me, the arowana was always an American fish – I had no idea that there were actually several species of arowana scattered across four continents.  And I certainly had no idea that one species was, as the subtitle of a book I just read put it, “the world’s most coveted fish.”

Yet that is exactly how journalist Emily Voigt describes the Asian arowana (Scleropages formosus) in her book, The Dragon Behind the Glass.  The title eludes to the dragon-like appearance of the Asian arowana, an aquarium fish capable of commanding prices of $150,000 on the pet trade for a superb specimen… and a fish that fuels sufficient jealousy and greed to inspire kidnappings, sabotage, and even murder. 

Voigt goes on a globe-hopping quest to get under the scales of the arowana, and into the minds of the people who have made it the ichthyologic super-star that it is.  The book encompasses a colorful cast of characters, from a Singapore-based breeder known as “Kenny the Fish” to a wealthy businessman who rebuilds his house specifically to accommodate a specially-made tank to show off his priceless fish to the smugglers who do prison time for illegally trafficking in the species.   She travels to Borneo to try and find the fish in its native habitat, and even to the reclusive, junta-ruled world of Myanmar in search of a potential new species of arowana, a mission driven by feuding biologists and necessitating a legal changing of her name (“That, if I had to pick a moment,” she admits, “was when I began to suspect that my relationship with the arowana was not 100 percent healthy”).

The Dragon Behind the Glass is more than a fish story, however.  It raises the interesting question of how to protect a rare species in our interconnected, commoditized world.  Is the secret strict government protection?  Many of the scientists that Voigt interviews feel that this only adds to the mystique of the fish and makes it more coveted by collectors.  Should the species be prolifically mass-produced in captivity and sold to whoever wants on?  That could remove the incentive to protect the wild species, as well as the habitat that supports it.  How to face the challenge that the arowana is threatened in its range countries, yet is an invasive pest elsewhere?

Like it or not, the arowana is a valuable commodity to collectors, as well as a priceless treasure for scientists (I won’t give any secrets away, but the scientific scheming and double-crossing that surround Voigt’s quest for arowana in Myanmar  would read just as easily as a novel as it does scientific journalism).
Some of the breeders that Voigt encounters maintain that their mass-production of captive arowana for the pet trade is saving the species from extinction and that their fish could be used to replenish wild stocks if the species were ever to go extinct in the wild.  Voigt seems to counter with the argument that a captive fish is, ecologically speaking, a dead fish and that reintroduction programs don't work.  In this particular case she's right - with their specialized breeding for color and body shape, Asian arowanas are slithering down the path to domestication.  I wish, however, that she'd explained more fully that this isn't the case for many reintroduction programs, including those that involve fish - sturgeon, for example, which are being raised in captivity and released in their native range in the United States.  That being said, the author barely touches public aquariums in the book, so it makes sense that she's focused on the practice of private, home aquariums.
One aspect of the book that I greatly enjoyed was its concept of how we perceive rarity.  Many collectors, the author maintains, desire the Asian arowana because of its rarity, because of the value and prestige that they see it as possessing.   In this, it's very similar to a far rarer avian treasure from another book I just read, Spix's macaw.  I can relate and understand.  When I visit a zoo or aquarium, I usually gloss over the lions and giraffes and black-tip reef sharks.  I make a beeline for the species that I've never seen before, especially if I know I won't be able to see it anywhere else.
Which raises on interesting point.  After reading this book, I did a little research.  There are about a dozen zoos and public aquariums in this country that are listed as having Asian arowana.  Some of them I have visited without ever having remembered seeing one.  I don't have any in my photo collection, but then again, I usually don't focus too much on fish.  Maybe I did see one and just never thought enough to photographic, to sit and watch it for a while.  Maybe, all things considered, I just didn't think it was that special.
Now I know better.

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