One January evening as the tepid winter heat was beginning to subside across Singapore, a stranger walked into the Lam Hong Aquarium Shop. The owner, a bespectacled woman named Tay Chai Eng, knew most of her patrons, but she had never seen this man before. He was in his early thirties—young enough to be her son—and carrying a bucket of water. He was also concealing a six-inch knife.
The moment Tay turned her back, the man plunged his hand into a tank, then raced out the door and into the parking lot. The older woman took off in frantic pursuit, catching the thief and latching onto his free arm like a barnacle. He dropped the bucket to punch her. It was just what she wanted—not the broken glasses or sliced cheek, but the five tiny young fish that spilled onto the asphalt, glinting like gold in the low rays of the sun.
These were Asian arowana, the world’s most expensive aquarium fish. In Chinese, they’re known as lóng yú, the dragon fish. Four of them died that day. The one that survived is now two feet long, its sinuous body plated with large scales as shiny and round as coins. A pair of whiskers juts from its lower lip, and two gauzy pectoral fins extend from its sides, suggesting a dragon in flight. This resemblance has led to the belief that the species brings prosperity and good fortune, that it will even commit suicide by jumping out of its tank to prevent the death of its owner. Across Asia, tycoons boast of dropping six figures on the finest specimens. In the United States, the fish is protected by the Endangered Species Act—though a thriving black market persists. One Wall Street banker wept when authorities confiscated his illegal fish.
How did a primitive predator from the swamps of Southeast Asia become such a coveted commodity? When I first began researching the fish, I expected to hear much about feng shui. I did. Ultimately, however, my reporting pointed me toward a more surprising story—the history of the species as a test case in conservation. In the mid-’70s, when the Asian arowana was still eaten more often than kept as a pet, its population was found to be declining due to overfishing and habitat loss. Consequently, the fish landed on the first Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Today CITES is one of the largest conservation agreements in the world, regulating the movement of some 35,000 species across the borders of 186 member states. The animals and plants on Appendix I are considered the rarest of the rare and generally banned from international trade. In the case of the Asian arowana, however, the listing seemed to backfire, propelling the species into the spotlight as a limited edition.
Paradoxically, “declaring a species endangered may make it more desirable and thereby increase the likelihood of exploitation,” according to a study led by French conservation biologist Franck Courchamp, who elsewhere has pointed to the example of rhinos: After rhinos were moved to Appendix I, the value of their horn quadrupled in Korea, which led to a sharp spike in poaching. A similar phenomenon afflicts reptiles and amphibians in the exotic pet trade, where animals listed on CITES fetch a premium price.
Economic theory has long held that trade alone is unlikely to drive a species to extinction, because of the rising cost of finding the last individuals of a dwindling population. Courchamp, however, proposes a new model that integrates a basic facet of human behavior well-known to economists since Adam Smith—the “paradox of value,” otherwise known as the “water and diamonds paradox.” While water has tremendous practical value, it’s worth nothing in exchange. Rare animals are the opposite, like diamonds. Their inflated value drives their exploitation, causing them to become ever rarer and hence more desirable until they’re sucked into an “extinction vortex.”
One solution is to scrub species of the sheen of rarity, scrapping bans in favor of sustainable trade. This approach produced one of the greatest conservation success stories of the 20th century: the resurrection of crocodilians, which were rescued from the brink through ranching programs in which eggs are collected from the wild and reared in captivity for skins. Some biologists such as Courchamp argue that this model is the best way to save rhinos whose horns could be harvested like wool. Others warn that for ranching to work as a conservation tool it must place a value on the preservation of wild populations. Without that link, we’re likely to be left with an oxymoron like the Asian arowana: a mass-produced endangered species. Bred by the hundreds of thousands on high-security farms protected by nested walls, barbed wire, and rottweilers that prowl the perimeters at night, the fish has all but disappeared from nature.
Emily Voigt is a journalist specializing in science and culture. She is the author of the just published book The Dragon Behind the Glass: A True Story of Power, Obsession, and the World’s Most Coveted Fish. Learn more at www.emilyvoigt.com.