In her spirited debut book, a journalist recounts her quest for a coveted aquarium fish.
Among the many exotic species prized by collectors, Voigt deems the Asian arowana, known as the dragon fish, one of the ugliest, “with its gnarled visage, petulant pout, and wormlike barbels.” Still, the arowana has spurred a black market, a “fish Mafia,” and dizzyingly high prices. Although no one would reveal exact numbers, the author heard rumors of single fish being sold for $300,000. At an international fish show, armed guards stood watch over arowana tanks. The species is ancient, with fossils dating to the Late Jurassic period, and it is characterized by a long, bony tongue bristling with pinlike teeth that seize prey and crush it against the roof of its mouth. Arowanas are so aggressive that each must be segregated from any other fish. On her journey, Voigt met with fish sellers, collectors, breeders, and hunters as her search to find the fish in the wild took her to Indonesia, Borneo, Malaysia, the Amazon, and Myanmar. She risked encounters with terrorists, headhunters, cannibals, man-eating crocodiles, land mines, and getting caught in the crossfire of Myanmar’s long civil war. Her investigation raises questions about the parameters of wildlife protection. “The dragon fish,” she writes, “is the most dramatic example of a uniquely modern paradox—the mass-produced endangered species.” Although considered endangered in the wild and barred from entry into the United States, fish farms serve a huge Asian domestic market, with fish bred for appealing traits such as color—or lack thereof: albinos are especially desired. Voigt also discovered controversy about the concept of a species: once defined as “populations that interbreed,” advances in genetics have generated “more than twenty different species concepts.” Among fish, more than 32,000 species have been recorded, with 350 added yearly.
A fresh, lively look at an obsessive desire to own a piece of the wild.