Borneo’s Red Dragon

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Mythical Borneo is home to many mythical creatures, and there is one that lives beneath our calm dark waters. This is the awesome Arowana, or the Dragon fish. Officially, its English name is the Asian Bonytongue. The Latin word Sclero means hard, and Phage means something that devours. Formosus means beautiful, finely formed. Brought together, Sclerophages formosus is not only the official name for the Arowana, but a most-apt description of this ancient animal.

This beautifully formed, armoured-scaled devourer of flesh is a powerful symbol of elegance, perfect form and the incarnation of the dragon. Have one in your home, or your business premises, and it will bring you prosperity, keep your family together and protect you from evil.

This is not a small fish, and neither is it cheap to own and keep. Arowana can grow to three feet long, and have healthy appetites, preferring live fish as food. In the wild, these supreme carnivores will eat almost any other living thing it can catch, tear apart or swallow in one gulp! One giant 3ft Arowana was observed killing, tearing apart and eating a whole snake, twice as long at itself. They have teeth on their jaws, inside their mouth and on their tongues too.

The Arowana lives only in freshwater. They prefer the acidic blackwaters of southeast Asia’s swamp forests and the slow-flowing waters of large rivers and lakes. They cannot tolerate salty water, and therefore they cannot cross the seas. But they are found in Indochina, Thailand, Sumatra, Peninsular Malaysia and Borneo. How did they get there if they can’t cross the salty seas?

The answer is that they never crossed the seas. They are remnants of the freshwater fish that lived across Sundaland before the seas rose and created the islands today. They are old, actually they are more than 140 million years old. It is no wonder that they have evolved into the perfect form of beauty and grace, they have had a long time to get it right!

Arowanas can cost you thousands of US dollars. Why? The main reason is that they are endangered species today, difficult to find and strongly regulated in how they are traded between countries. Certificates are required, and most of the highest quality Arowanas have micro-chips in them to assure buyers and regulators of their authenticity. Their natural habitats are rapidly being lost, and wild-caught Arowanas are extremely difficult to get. Most of the Arowanas in shops are farmed, from captive-bred stocks.

The Arowana is undoubtedly Borneo’s most beautiful fish. Its scales are amongst the largest among freshwater fish, each at least 2cm across. Each scale has delicate patterns and mosaics, and have a metallic shine. They have two barbels (like twin beards) sticking out from their lower jaw, resembling the Chinese dragon, hence its name Dragonfish. Added to this impressive character, it is their colour that makes people go waaah!

Arowanas from different parts of southeast Asia have different colours. The northern Indochinese varieties are green and silver, the Malay peninsula are beautifully patterned in gold and red, and the Sumatran forms are silver and red. But it is the form from Borneo that is most impressive – completely bright glowing shining red. This is the red dragon of Borneo, and only from Borneo.

These magnificent red dragons are found almost exclusively in one river system, the Kapuas river in west Kalimantan. Some 700km upstream of the Kapuas is the Danau Sentarum lakes, much closer to Lanjak in Sarawak than Pontianak in Kalimantan. This giant lake system, some 80,000ha of floodplain lakes, supports Borneo’s largest and last remaining population of the Red Dragonfish. And even here, the Arowana is declining fast, as aquarium traders continue to catch them.

Another reason why the Arowana is so highly prized is they live long lives. They can live for 60 years. They don’t start breeding until four years, and the males are the care-takers of Arowana babies. Arowanas are mouth-brooders. After the female lays eggs, the male keeps them in its mouth. After hatching, the fry live in the male’s mouth, wandering outside to feed, but quickly returning to the mouth when threatened.

Watching an Arowana in an aquarium is a mesmerising experience. It also makes one think of the wonderful animals that live on Borneo. They have lived here for millions of years, generation after generation and generation, a symbol of our island’s richness of life, and ancient history. Something inside us can’t help but appreciate nature’s wonder, and want it to be here forever. We have no right to wipe out a 140 million year-old creature in order for us to live. No such thing as we humans replacing something else. We must live together, a perfect form, an elegant life.

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