10 August 2016

Emily through the aquarium glass: The Dragon Behind The Glass reviewed

Ahab had a great white whale.

Emily Voigt had a great red fish.

Then a great batik fish.

Then a great silver fish.

In every case, Voigt is pursuing the arowana. She first hears the name from a law enforcement who is talking to her about the exotic pet trade in New York. She learns that the arowana is a large fish prized by a certain kind of aquarium owner: usually Asian, male, and rich. The latter is the most necessary feature for many arowana owners, because single individual arowanas are fetching hundreds of thousands of American dollars.

That’s not a typo. It’s no surprise that you find arowana gracing the landing page of Aquarama, a trade show for the aquarium industry that Voigt visits early in the book.

Even by the time Voigt visits Aquarama, it’s clear that the arowana is the center of an unusual market, often shrouded in secrecy, and both threats and acts of violence. Again and again throughout the book, arowana are stolen, smuggled, and fought over, both in the professional and literal sense of the word.

The strangeness of it all is compelling for the reader and Voigt, who ends up pursuing this fish through multiple countries and jungles. She’s accompanied by a memorable set of other people, who I found myself constantly googling to see by the time I reached the second half of the book.

The Dragon Behind the Glass is not an academic work, but it almost could have been. Voigt’s research on the pet trade and the science is flawless. There is lots of solid biology and scientific history. For instance, we learn one species of arowana was collected and drawn by no less than the co-discoverer of natural selection, Alfred Russel Wallace, on an expedition to the Amazon that was ultimately doomed. (Sean Carroll’s Into the Jungle describes why in more detail than here. It’s about the only example in the book where I felt Voigt missed a good story.)

I came to this book because of my own research on the aquarium industry. But I was an armchair investigator. I was frustrated by my inability to get a handle on much of the supply chain for aquarium animals (crayfish in my case). Voigt provides that inside view of the production and wholesale end of the aquarium trade, and has many thoughtful asides about the pet trade. She considers the pros and cons of collecting from wild populations, CITES listings, and the paradox of the arowana being “a mass produced endangered species” (a term that applies perfectly to some crayfish in the pet trade, too).

While I was originally interested in this book because of its relevance to my own research, I kept reading because it was intertwined with the personal stuff, and her own jungle adventures, in such an entertaining way. Voigt is self aware enough to realize that her interest in this fish is... not normal. There’s a recurring theme of, “Why am I doing this and is it worth it?” that I think anyone deeply invested in a project will recognize.

The Dragon Behind the Glass is part exposé, part travelogue, part scholarship, and part descent into madness. It’s a combination as addictive as a skillfully made desert.

External links

Emily Voigt
The Dragon Behind the Glass (publisher page)
The Dragon Behind the Glass (Amazon page)
The deadly trade around exotic fish
Aquarama trade show
Early evolution pioneers’ artwork now online

Talks at Google:

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