Preventing the Extinction of Wild Populations of Asian Arowana in their Global Strongholds
The Asian Arowana (Scleropages formosus), one of the world's most beautiful and primordial fish, is under extremely high risk of extinction due to over-collection for the exotic pet trade. This fish is listed on the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES Appendix I) and classified as Endangered by the World Conservation Union (IUCN, 2004), although its status has not been assessed since 1996. The lack of a recent review, combined with the current confusion as to the number of species ( S. formosus was split into four species in 2003), means that it is now considered by regional experts to be critically endangered with extinction (M. Smith; W. Rainboth, pers comm.). It was once widespread, but is now only confirmed to occur in Cambodia, Indonesia and Malaysia. All strains are probably endangered, but some more critically than others.
In Chinese and Southeast Asian culture, captive Asian Arowana (also called dragonfish) are thought to bring good luck to a household. These fish have traditionally been harvested from the wild as fingerlings (juvenile fishes), often with high mortality rates for both young and adult fish, though this practice is much reduced now that the species is bred in captivity in large numbers. The sale of South American Arowana in Asia is also reducing pressure on wild Asian Arowana. However, some harvesting of wild fish still occurs, particularly in poor countries such as Cambodia and Indonesia. The Asian Arowana is a mouth-breeder, meaning that the adults guard the fingerlings by holding them in their mouth. Methods used to capture fingerlings involve scaring the adults into ejecting the fingerlings, whereupon they are scooped out of the water in small nets. Methods used to scare adult Asian Arowana include using gill nets, shooting at the fish, or using electro-fishing equipment. These methods frequently harm or kill adult fish, making harvesting of fingerlings unsustainable in the long-term. Without conservation interventions, this species could become extinct in the wild within ten years.
Due to the fact that no populations of Asian Arowana are found within any formally protected area in Southeast Asia, continued management of the Cambodian populations and a scaling up of efforts to protect the Indonesian populations is likely to be the only remaining option for preventing this species from going extinct in the wild.
2. CI Indo-Burma's Asian Arowana Conservation Program
In 2003-2004, CI supervised the preparation of analyses of conservation priorities across the Indo-Burma and Indonesian Hotspots. These analyses highlighted the urgent need to conserve the freshwater biodiversity of these regions. The same analyses also highlighted the Asian Arowana as a species of extremely high conservation concern. This was because the species was threatened with extinction due to over-collection, exacerbated by the fact that there were no known populations within any protected areas anywhere in Southeast Asia. This meant that the species was extremely unprotected and vulnerable to exploitation.
We found that the Asian Arowana has been extirpated across much of its range in Southeast Asia as a result of collecting for the aquarium trade, so we focused our attentions on finding wild populations that we could help to conserve. It appears that the species is now extinct in Thailand, Laos PDR, and Vietnam. Its status is unknown in Myanmar. However, we found that the species still persists in Cambodia. We conducted two years of intensive field surveys across the country and documented five viable populations of dragonfish in the undisturbed river systems of the Cardamom Mountains in southwest Cambodia. We also identified potential sites for conservation of the species in Indonesia. These sites represent some of the best global opportunities to prevent this beautiful and ancient fish from extinction.
In Cambodia, CI found that rural communities in the vicinity of these five populations had self-initiated rudimentary conservation activities to protect wild Asian Arowana that could be developed into strong, successful conservation programs. The communities requested support, which provided us with a unique opportunity to implement community-driven conservation. We now work with these communities to implement conservation incentives and fund community ranger programs to protect Asian Arowana in the wild. We provide environmentally friendly incentives to the community, equal in financial terms to the monetary value gained from the fingerling Asian Arowana harvest, in return for a complete no-fishing agreement. The form that the incentives take (e.g. agricultural support) is decided through participatory discussions with the local Community Natural Resource Management Committee (CNRMC) and other local stakeholders. The benefits are shared equitably, the process is fair and transparent, the local communities are supportive and engaged in conservation, and the wild populations of Asian Arowana are now showing clear signs of recovery.
2.1 Aims of the Cambodian Asian Arowana Conservation Project
CI Indo-Burma's Asian Arowana Conservation Program focuses on three key aims:
(1) Work closely with local communities at all Asian Arowana conservation sites to ensure the wild populations of Asian Arowana are protected and effectively managed
We provide environmental education, help develop and implement clear management rules, and identify and provide incentives to reduce fishing pressure. Incentives include support for alternative activities, such as providing equipment for agriculture in exchange for no-fish regulations. We set up community and government patrols of the river sections to protect the wild Asian Arowana and their habitats.
(2) Utilize our team of highly trained Cambodian fisheries graduates and government staff to provide long-term monitoring of Asian Arowana stocks
It is essential that we monitor the status of each Asian Arowana population to ensure our activities at each site have a positive conservation effect. This allows us to adapt our approach and become ever more efficient in our conservation activities. This monitoring is therefore essential to document the progress towards our outcome of ensuring that populations of Asian Arowana rebound and remain secure in the wild. Our skilled and enthusiastic team of Cambodian staff forms the core monitoring team, with CI providing long-term mentoring as necessary.
The team's representatives from within the Cambodian Fisheries Administration work with the communities to ensure they are supported legally. Additional protection and legal support is given by local police.
(3) Highlight Asian Arowana as a flagship species to promote awareness of freshwater conservation at the province and national level
Freshwater ecosystems are just starting to become a conservation focus in Cambodia, so the Asian Arowana Conservation Program helps to leverage a great deal of government and provincial support for freshwater conservation. We conduct media campaigns and public relations exercises that focus not only on conservation of the highly recognizable Asian Arowana, but also on other charismatic or rare freshwater biodiversity such as otters and turtles.
2.2 Activities of the Cambodian Asian Arowana Conservation Project
Community incentives were developed using participatory methods at a series of commune meetings at which local stakeholders at each site were given the opportunity to discuss the form each incentive would take. It was essential that each community as a whole agreed to the incentive package to ensure compliance. We used our experience developing and implementing community incentives elsewhere in Cambodia and around the world to ensure that this process was community-driven and that the final incentives negotiated were adequate and environmentally friendly. The incentives currently consist of agricultural support, such as farming equipment, seeds, and training in good agricultural practices. Each community also receives financial incentives for patrolling and protecting the wild populations of Asian Arowana (see below). All incentives are reviewed annually and revised according to the needs and requests of the communities.
The community ranger component consists of a team of six people at each site: two local police, three community members, and one member of the CNRMC. Local police are selected on a rotational basis to ensure all local police are involved. For each patrol, three community members are selected at a community meeting to ensure fair and transparent employment, and to ensure that all community members have the opportunity to be involved. The CNRMC member is selected in the same way. All CNRMC members are trained in data collection and patrol techniques.
The role of the patrol team is to prevent fishing in the Asian Arowana Conservation Areas. Engaging community members through employment has resulted in their vested interest in protecting Asian Arowana, as their actions are directly linked to their livelihood and specific conservation goals and targets. Each team is paid for every day spent on patrol in the Asian Arowana Conservation Area. This is monitored by recording every patrol with date-stamped GPS units, thereby confirming their exact location and the date they were there. There is one patrol at each site every month during the rainy season (when the river is flooded and Asian Arowana are almost impossible to capture), and at least three patrols during the fish breeding season in the dry season, when the fish populations are most vulnerable. Each patrol lasts for 5-8 days.
2.3 Monitoring the success of the Conservation Project
The method we use to monitor the success of the project is complex in design but simple in practice, so the results are scientifically rigorous while at the same time the Cambodian teams are capable of managing the activities. We capture Asian Arowana using non-harmful methods (e.g., permanently manned nets, night-captures looking for eye-shine) and then use fish tags (individually numbered T-tags) to uniquely mark each fish. The fish are then released at the point of capture. We conduct these fish monitoring surveys annually for one month during the dry season. We record the location of each fish, linked to the tag numbers, so that we can monitor the movements of wild Asian Arowana from year to year. We also radio-track a small number of adult Asian Arowana and monitor their movements on a monthly basis so we can precisely study their movements. This helps us monitor their location during the wet season.
At each survey site, we found that wild Asian Arowana move between deep pools during the wet season when the river is in flood, but remain within a distinct stretch of river. We have now identified the precise stretch of river, at each of the five sites, which we need to protect for the Asian Arowana to be efficiently conserved in the wild. This is allowing us to define the long-term biological management area for the project. This information has been provided to the community ranger teams, so we ensure that the patrols occur in the correct areas.
We also take detailed measurements of each fish we capture during our annual surveys, so we can produce a demographic representation of the fish population on an annual basis. If the incentive schemes and patrolling are effective in the long-term, we aim to see a very significant increase in the number of hatchlings and juveniles in the short term, and a gradual increase in the numbers of adult fish in the long term. This has been the case in the last two years - we have captured and observed large numbers of fingerling Asian Arowana, showing that the adults bred successfully and the hatchlings were not harvested and sold into the exotic pet trade. This is our long-term biological measure of success for the incentives project.
We employ local fishermen to help us with the annual monitoring to ensure that they know we are surveying and capturing the Asian Arowana solely for monitoring, not for trade. We discussed the monitoring work in village meetings and completed a community outreach and education campaign before the surveys began, so we could outline the survey aims to the community and employ fishermen in an equitable manner.
3. CI Indonesia's Asian Arowana Conservation Program
There are a number of registered CITES breeders in Indonesia, as well as in Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and a few other countries. Because Indonesia contains wild Asian Arowana and fish farms, it is important to focus conservation efforts there to ensure wild populations are not being impacted by the fish farming activities. However, declining habitat is also a major threat to Arowana in Indonesia.
There is a need for immediate action in Indonesia to save Asian Arowana, through widespread large scale actions and a well coordinated approach. However, there are no existing conservation activities in place in Indonesia to deal with threats to the species. CI Indonesia aims to address this conservation gap.
As a first step, a common agenda will be developed in a participatory manner, involving all stakeholders. Different players, including universities, NGOs and local and central governments, as well as international stakeholders and traders will sit together to develop priority goals and actions that can be agreed by all, using sound knowledge, experience and scientific principles. Only in this way can a robust and effective action plan be developed for conserving Asian Arowana in Indonesia in the long term.
The next step will be identification of key areas for conservation. CI Indonesia has already taken steps to identify strongholds for conservation of the species, and has a list of sites historically known to contain Arowana.
3.1 Development of an Asian Arowana Action Plan for Indonesia
CI Indonesia proposes to develop an Asian Arowana Action Plan which will identify urgent priority actions for conservation at key sites, as agreed upon by stakeholders. This will be accomplished by convening national and international specialists, government staff (e.g., staff from parks where Asian Arowana occur), academics and researchers from national universities, registered fish farm owners, and local stakeholders. This 'Indonesian Arowana Action Plan Workshop' will determine the most effective strategies for safeguarding the species.
The resulting Action Plan will be published by the IUCN/SSC Specialist Group and circulated to relevant government departments. This will lay the foundation for future Asian Arowana conservation activities in Indonesia.
3.2 Long-term Conservation of Asian Arowana
CI Indonesia will engage in long-term conservation of Asian Arowana in Indonesia through the following activities:
1. Analyses of the current status of Asian Arowana in Indonesia , its distribution and rate of decline (including habitat block evaluation - quality, size, threat levels).
2. Identification of research and survey priorities ; where are the gaps in knowledge and how best to fill them.
3. Field research (linked to national universities) to confirm the presence and status of Asian Arowana in key sites.
4. Assessment of planning issues relating to existing habitat blocks and their future status.
5. Legal issues and law enforcement at key sites.
6. Awareness raising (e.g., in local communities).
7. Capacity building of forestry dept and legal infrastructure.