A Fish to Die For

Dragon-Glass225What happens when you cross Finding Nemo with The Orchid Thief? You get The Dragon Behind the Glass, Emily Voigt's bizarre, true tale of the pursuit of the Asian arowana - a fish so rare that one collector reportedly paid $150,000 for an albino specimen, while other rumors hint at transactions for twice that amount. Another enthusiast was killed for his; though the arowana is coveted in part for its reputed powers of good luck, apparently they don't cover everybody.

What fish could be worth murder or so much money? What is going on here? Who does this? Here Voigt explains how she became involved with the story and provides character sketches for some of her story's main players: the good, the bad, and the ichthy. 

Author Emily Voigt on The Dragon Behind the Glass

One summer afternoon, before I’d heard of the “fish mafia” or begun investigating fish-motivated homicides, I sought out a detective known as a real-life Ace Ventura patrolling the streets of New York. Sure enough, I found him brimming with bizarre tales from an urban bestiary. There was the Harlem man who kept Ming the tiger and Al the alligator in the apartment where his mother was raising eight small children; the wealthy Brooklyn family who treated their African Diana monkey, one of the rarest primate species on earth, like a second daughter; and a never-ending scourge of “arowana.”

What?” I asked, mishearing “marijuana,” which proved strangely apt. The Asian arowana, I learned, is an ancient tropical fish protected by the Endangered Species Act and illegal to bring into the United States as a pet. Yet trafficking is rampant. The detective recounted a bust at a dingy Brooklyn sweatshop, where women sat hunched over sewing machines, scraps of fabric strewn about the floor—a front for running arowana. Overseas in Southeast Asia, the species is raised on high-security farms that could pass as prisons with nested concrete walls, watchtowers, and rottweilers prowling the perimeters at night to protect against marauding fish bandits. No wonder, too, since a single rare specimen is rumored to fetch as much as $300,000.

Emily-Voigt225Had someone informed me that fish comprise the vast majority of exotic pets—that they are the most common pet, period, with more than 100 million swimming in aquariums across the United States—I would not have cared one bit. I certainly didn’t imagine that one would upend my life, propelling me from the streets of the South Bronx to the heart of Borneo and beyond. What hooked me was not the fish itself—a rough-looking, prehistoric creature—but rather the host of obsessives that have trailed it from the great age of natural discovery to our modern day.


The Dragon Behind the Glass: A Cast of Characters

Lieutenant John Fitzpatrick: Pet Detective

“We’re here because of the alligator you were offering to sell on Craig’s List.”

A detective with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, Fitzpatrick has been policing New York City’s illegal wildlife trade since 1996, encountering everything from gorilla-hand ashtrays to twelve hundred turtles crammed into a swank Tribeca loft, their owner left with no room for a bed. “I think that a lot of the people who have these animals are interested in nature, and that, in and of itself, is not a bad thing,” he says. “It’s just they’re going about it the wrong way.”  

Kenny the Fish: Singaporean Kingpin

“I’m naughty, I’m playful.”

A flamboyant millionaire notorious for posing nude behind strategically placed aquatic pets, Kenny Yap, aka Kenny the Fish, reigns over the glamorous world of Southeast Asian aquaculture. The youngest son of an impoverished pig farmer, Yap burst onto the scene as the executive chairman of an ornamental-fish farm so lucrative that it’s listed on Singapore’s main stock exchange. A fawning press touts him as one of the city’s most eligible bachelors and has called for him to host a national spin-off of Donald Trump’s reality show, The Apprentice.

Heiko Bleher: Indiana Jones of Tropical Fish

“I just did my 856th expedition… They always tell me, ‘It’s very dangerous, you don’t get out alive.’ I never believe these stories.”

A former fish trader turned ichthyological explorer, Bleher says he’s from “all over the world,” but he was born in a bunker amid the ruins of 1940s Frankfurt, not far from the site where his grandfather ran one of the largest ornamental-fish farms of the day. After World War II, Bleher’s mother divorced her husband, packed up her four children, and set off in search of what was then the world’s most expensive aquarium fish—the discus—in an uncharted region of the Amazon, commonly known as “the green hell.” Bleher, the youngest, was nine when they were stranded in a leper colony and held captive by a Nazi on the lam. More than sixty years later, he still spends most of his time traveling to remote locales in the manic pursuit of new fish species.

Tyson Roberts: Grand Titan of Ichthyology

“Now, do you want to know the nasty, sneaky, shitty little secret about the dragon fish trade?”

One of the last great traditional biologists, Roberts has a mind like a labyrinth of interconnecting corridors, blind alleys, and hidden trapdoors that’s almost impossible to exit once you’ve entered. Over the past half-century, he has probably killed and pickled more species of fish than anyone else alive, traipsing across the globe like some pagan god of ichthyology holding a fishnet in place of a trident. Many of the aquatic ecosystems he studied have since been destroyed. “If I go to a place, within ten or thirty years after my visit, there won’t be any fish anymore,” he says. “That’s just about true of anywhere I’ve ever been my entire life.”

Ida Pfeiffer: Victorian Explorer

“[T]he vapor and stench from the fresh head was suffocating, and from time to time driven by the wind right into my face… Sleep was impossible, and I got by degrees into a perfect fever of terror.”

In 1852, Pfeiffer traveled in a wooden longboat up Borneo’s River of Man-Eating Crocodiles clad in full Victorian dress and sleeping beneath the gruesome trophies of Dayak headhunters. A popular Austrian author who chronicled her travels in such bestsellers as A Lady’s Journey Round the World, Pfeiffer later became the first European to embed herself among the Batak cannibals of Sumatra, whom she famously told she was too old and tough to make good eating.

Alfred Russel Wallace: Darwin’s Unwitting Rival

“[A]ll living things were not made for man.”

Two years after Pfeiffer, Wallace landed in the same corner of Borneo, little more than a glorified bug collector from England. Over the better part of a decade in the Malay Archipelago, he would establish himself as the greatest field biologist of the nineteenth century, hitting upon the idea of evolution by natural selection, which he promptly mailed to his idol Darwin—who then rushed to publish his own theory.


The Asian Arowana, AKA The Dragon Fish

Uniting these characters through time and across the globe is a near-mythic fish. In Chinese, the creature is known as lóng yú, the dragon fish, for its sinuous body plated with large scales as round and shiny as coins. At maturity, the primitive predator reaches the length of a samurai sword, about two to three feet, and can be red, gold, or green. A pair of whiskers juts from its chin, and two gauzy pectoral fins extend from its sides, suggesting a dragon in flight. This resemblance has led to the belief that the fish brings good luck and prosperity—that it will even commit suicide by vaulting from its tank, sacrificing its life to save its owner. Our efforts to save it have been less valiant. Virtually depleted from the wild, the species is now rumored to sell for as much as $300,000 as a pet, spurring heists, fraud, kidnapping, and even murder. 


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