There’s a good chance that, unless you’re an exotic fish collector, you’ve never heard of the Asian arowana. But in some circles, the nondescript fish—which is indigenous to the rivers and swamps of Southeast Asia—can grow up to 3 feet long and fetch a price of up to $150,000. According to writer Emily Voigt, who recently published a book on the Asian arowana entitled The Dragon Behind the Glass: A True Story of Power, Obsession and the World’s Most Coveted Fish, people have even been murdered over the rare fish.
PRI recently talked to Voigt about her experiences researching the Asian arowana. The endangered arowana is raised and sold in Southeast Asia, but it's illegal to own one in the United States (just handling one can land you in legal trouble).
The arowana is raised "on farms that are likened to high-security prisons," Voigt told PRI. "They have high concrete walls and barbed wire and Rottweilers prowling around the perimeters at night."
According to Voigt, the exotic fish is believed to resemble a dragon and is associated with prosperity. But, above all, it’s a status symbol around the world. The fish have inspired heists, and bereaved pet owners have hired professional pet detectives to track down stolen arowana. “There’s been kidnappings and fish-related canings and even murder,” she says.
In a Daily Beast article, Voigt explains that it’s unclear why the Asian arowana has become so coveted. However, she believes its designation as an endangered species may be driving up its value, since its perceived rarity is part of what makes it so appealing.
“Their inflated value drives their exploitation, causing them to become ever rarer and hence more desirable until they’re sucked into an ‘extinction vortex,’" Voigt explains. Farmed by the thousands, but rarely found in the wild, the Asian arowana has become what Voigt calls “a mass-produced endangered species.”