A few decades ago, the Asian arowana was more likely to be on a dinner plate than in an aquarium. But today, the fish is a highly sought-after specimen that enthusiasts will go to great lengths to obtain, including breaking endangered species laws, paying thousands upon thousands of dollars ($150,000 in one case), and worse. “There’s been kidnappings and fish-related canings and even murder,” author Emily Voigt tells PRI. In her newly released book, The Dragon Behind the Glass, Voigt explores the circumstances that have transformed the Asian arowana—known as the dragon fish for its appearance and temperament—from "an ordinary food fish" into one of the "most coveted." Her conclusion: It all started with the addition of the fish to the initial Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).
Plants and animals in Appendix I are the "rarest of the rare and generally banned from international trade," Voigt says in an article she penned for the Daily Beast. Even before being added to CITES in 1975, the Asian arowana, which can grow to be 3 feet long, was becoming scarce due to overharvesting and other factors. "In the case of the Asian arowana, however, the listing seemed to backfire, propelling the species into the spotlight as a limited edition." The fish's highlighted scarcity, along with traditional beliefs that the Asian arowana brings luck to its owner, made the fish more attractive. To meet the demand, the fish is farmed in Southeast Asia at facilities that, she tells PRI, "are likened to high-security prisons." One solution to the illegal activities inspired by the Asian arowana: "Scrub the species of the sheen of rarity, scrapping bans in favor of sustainable trade," Voigt writes in the Daily Beast. (Endangered Tasmanian devils are suffering from a mysterious cancer.)