Arowana become popular pet of super rich

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Forget oil and diamonds, the next big thing in South East Asia is fish.

Dragonfish or arowana, such as Scleropages formosus, are one of the most popular fish kept in Asia.

Believed by those of Chinese origin to resemble a dragon and to symbolise good luck, health, prosperity, family harmony and protection against evil, suppliers of these fish have given some specimens price tags of many tens of thousands of pounds.

While these fish may be disappearing in the wild, their popularity amongst Asia s richest is ever increasing.

There are whole networks of businesses devoted to breeding and selling these fish alone throughout Indonesia.

At a recent fair in Indonesia, 50 competition arowana were valued by the Indonesian Arowana Club at a total value of one million dollars and were placed under 24 hour guard.

Individual competition winners are gaining reputations akin to that of racehorses said chairman Stephen Suryaatmadja.

Endangered
Breeding currently takes place in three countries; Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. Breeders need to register with CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species).

Each fish must be micro-chipped and must come with a certificate proving that it is captive bred.

Despite these precautions, the desire for these fish is creating a "very high level of smuggling," Chris Shepherd, a regional programme officer with TRAFFIC Southeast Asia, a group which monitors the wildlife trade told AFP.

"The profit margins are really high and therefore there are a lot of illegal captures to sustain the illegal trade," he says. "The populations are rapidly declining. It's a very urgent situation and I don't see any sign of the trade getting smaller."

The IUCN (World Conservation Union) which monitors endangered species assessed this species in 1996 and listed it as Endangered.

Laurent Pouyaud, a geneticist who specialises in Scleropages says that then it was though to be extinct in Thailand and possibly also Myanmar.

It is now thought to be nearly completely extinct in Indonesia too; with the remaining habitat in Borneo covering less than 247 acres in total.

Show scene
Judges of arowana are extremely fussy. Colour and body shape make up 30% each of the final mark, while the remaining 40% is worked out on the tail, fins and mouth.

A prime arowana's eyes must naturally look upwards whilst the two barbels must run parallel to each other and the fins must be well-shaped and intact.

An arowana that has a single row of scales along the crest of its back, rather than splitting in two at the gills, is declared "I Thiaw Long," or "dragon in the dark," and its value immediately doubles, according to Suryaatmadja.

The huge value placed on these fish means that they are a mecca for fraudsters with less discerning individuals feeding non 'super red' varieties with hormone injected grasshoppers to induce the brighter colour.

Other slightly macabre stories include owners hand feeding conjoined twin individuals that couldn t swim by hand to keep them alive.