CITES and the Dragonfish: Background information when reading The Dragon Behind the Glass

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The Dragon Behind the Glass

A True Story of Power, Obsession, and the World's Most Coveted Fish

by Emily Voigt

The Dragon Behind the Glass by Emily Voigt X
The Dragon Behind the Glass by Emily Voigt
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  • First Published:
    May 2016, 336 pages
    May 2017, 336 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Poornima Apte
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CITES and the Dragonfish

This article relates to The Dragon Behind the Glass

Print Review

ArowanaThe Dragon Behind the Glass: A True Story of Power, Obsession, And the World's Most Coveted Fish, by Emily Voigt, explores the wild dragon fish or Asian arowana, which is protected under CITES (pronounced sigh-tees), the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. CITES is among the largest conservation agreements in the world, regulating the movement of endangered species across the borders of 186 member states.

The agreement was set into motion after a resolution adopted by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in 1963 to figure out a regulated way of trade in species that are threatened; the agreement went into effect nearly a decade later. CITES works by participating countries assigning a licensing arm and a scientific body to protect species. The scientists determine which indigenous species are threatened by trade, and the licensing arm grants trade permits accordingly, keeping an eye on ground totals.

Species that are regulated by CITES can be assigned to one of three lists or appendices. Appendix I includes species threatened with extinction. According to the CITES website, "trade in specimens of these species is permitted only in exceptional circumstances." Appendix II includes species not necessarily threatened with extinction, but "in which trade must be controlled in order to avoid utilization incompatible with their survival." Appendix III contains species that are protected in at least one country, which has asked other CITES Parties for assistance in controlling the trade.

The animals and plants on Appendix I are, therefore, considered the rarest of the rare, and are generally banned from international trade. The Asian arowana has been on Appendix I since 1975, and at the time the designation didn't make much sense, Voigt says, because there wasn't much international trade in the fish and, in fact, it was eaten more than being bought for decorative purposes.

CITES Certificate of IdentityTrade in the Asian arowana really exploded when smugglers took the fish out of Indonesia and into Taiwan, where it became the object of a virtual cult. Since then, because of CITES, "the dragon fish is one of the most dramatic examples of a modern paradox – the mass-produced endangered species," Voigt writes. The farming program began in the 1990s and since then CITES has tracked the legal export of 1.5 million Asian arowana, numbers that don't count domestic trade. The problem this creates is that wild fish can be passed off as their farmed brethren, and because more often than not certification of authenticity depends on corrupt governments.

The most famous product to be regulated by CITES is ivory, which is regulated under special "national ivory action plans." According to these plans, member states can be designated as parties of "primary concern," or "secondary concern," or "importance to watch." Those labeled as "primary concern" are required to outline a definite plan to increase awareness and stop the trade. Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam are among the countries on the primary concern list.

CITES protects roughly 5,600 species of animals and 30,000 species of plants, although these numbers change frequently. While CITES was launched under the auspices of IUCN, the CITIES board operations are largely disbursed by a fund set up by participating countries. The IUCN continues to maintain a Red List of threatened species and inclusion in this list automatically triggers evaluation by CITES members, much like it did in the case of the Asian arowana.

Red Arowana
CITES Certificate of Identity

Filed under Nature and the Environment

Article by Poornima Apte

This "beyond the book article" relates to The Dragon Behind the Glass. It originally ran in July 2016 and has been updated for the May 2017 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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