Close Encounters with the Dragon Fish

Sprawled across nine acres (3.65 hectares) on industrial Neo Tiew Crescent—nearing the border that joins Singapore and Malaysia—lies a prime estate dedicated to breed dragon fish or the Asian arowana.

The provincial ambiance betrays the skyscrapers that usually rule the Singapore cityscape. The countryside atmosphere, the secrets that hide beneath the ponds, and its genteel owner prove a welcome respite despite the 45-minute journey by cab. The travel long and the place remote by Singapore standards.

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Unleash the Dragon

The compound houses the Dragon Fish Industry, home to some of the world’s best-bred varieties of the highly endangered and much sought after…well, dragon fish. Its shy but very driven and knowledgeable owner, William Goh, surveys with quiet pride how his childhood hobby has grown into a thriving market. Not only because it has become the family’s main source of income. More importantly, his efforts contribute largely in protecting and preserving the highly endangered species.

“I have always been fascinated with the awesome beauty of these tropical fishes. Their elegant posture, the metallic sheen of their scales, and those intelligent eyes just strike you with amazement anytime,” William says excitedly of his first encounter with the finned wonders.

William’s unusual early-days interest grew into unmitigated passion to protect the Asian arowanas, especially after learning that the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) raised the flag on the arowanas’ fast dwindling population since 1980. The fish has been highly priced and a treasured pet among the Chinese because it is believed to ward off any evil spirits or unfortunate events when treated well by its owners.

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Protecting the Species

“But not all varieties of arowanas are endangered,” William hastened to add. In fact, as he has explained in his book, The Millennium Dragon, only the Red, Golden, Green and Yellow species found in Asia suffer in numbers. Close relatives Pearl, Spotted arowanas from Australia and New Guinea as well as the Silver and Black variety from South America abound in the wild and are even commercially available.

Such is William’s dedication to the rare dragon fish that he has authored two books so far (the other book, titled The Asian Arowana), chronicling the lives of the dragon fish and guiding owners about how to better take care of them. Both books also help the uninitiated among us to appreciate the beauty of these rare tropical water inhabitants.

Interestingly, William Goh co-wrote the book with his wife, Julia Chua, who was herself not a big fanatic of dragon fish at first until William introduced her to a cross-back golden variety, which is the costliest in the market.

“It was love at first sight! You should see its stunning pose and its shimmering scales,” exclaimed Julia.

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It Pays to Know a Good Deal

Here are some warnings and tips on buying Asian arowanas that the husband-wife team shared with this writer:

You judge a high-quality arowana by its broad and gentle body shape, radiant and neatly arranged scales, large and proportionate finnage, long and upright barbels (the whisker-like offshoot from its lips), graceful and non-panicky swimming style, bright and same-size eyes.

Good things do not come cheap for the Gold variety of Asian Arowanas, whose origins are mostly limited to the CITES-protected sites in Malaysia and Singapore. A standard Cross Back costs four to five times higher than a Red Tail. Moreover, the very rare Platinum Cross Back commands almost double the price of a standard cross back. Always exercise caution when you come across a “cheap” cross back.

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Wild Cross Back is more often not a better choice over its captive-bred counterparts, as the former tends to interbreed, thus losing its pure blood strains. Watch out for long barbels, a more rounded-looking head and paler skin color, which are indications of the wild cross back.

Red Tails look closely similar to Cross Backs. The trick: Check the coloration of the scales. Counting from the stomach up, the golden color should at least appear up to fifth level of the scale.

The Red Arowana (not to be confused with Red Tail Golden sub-variety of Gold Arowanas) has two sub-varieties, Blood Red and Chili Red, with the latter more rare, thus costing more. “Auspicious” and “lucky” are just some of the traits associated with red, thus this variety’s worldwide appeal.

A Ruby Red variety is very highly priced for its red fins, red lips and barbels and very deep blue scales. Since they are very rare, ruby red arowanas cost more than a standard cross back!

Green Arowana has only one variety, with the Yellow Tail more often classified under it. They are easier to breed and thus cost the least among the varieties mentioned.

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Taking the Plunge

Even before taking the leap to taking care of Asian arowanas, William and Julia warn newcomers that beyond the money involved, the future enthusiasts must invest time.

“Keeping pets entails full commitment, more so for highly endangered species like the Asian arowanas,” William stresses.

But once you’ve made up your mind, the breathtaking sight of these golden creatures swimming together proudly is simply unforgettable, as this writer had experienced after the first encounter with the rare and beautiful Asian arowanas.

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