ABOUT THAILAND’S NATIONAL AQUATIC ANIMAL

Also known as Betta, Siamese fighting fish are a freshwater species native to Southeast Asian countries – Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam and of course Thailand, mostly concentrated in the Chao Phraya River.  The fish can be found in standing waters of canals, rice paddies and floodplains.

ABOUT THAILAND’S NATIONAL AQUATIC ANIMAL

Bettas are well known for being highly territorial, with males prone to attacking each other if housed in the same tank.  Without a means of escape, this can result in the death of one or both fish.  Female bettas can also become territorial towards one other in confined spaces. 

In addition to its worldwide popularity, the Siamese fighting fish is the national aquatic animal of Thailand, a status proposed by the Department of Fisheries and on 5th February 2019, Thailand’s council of ministers confirmed “Siamese fighting fish” as Thailand’s National Aquatic Animal.  On 21st September 2020 Thailand Post released a stamp series featuring these fish.

Despite their abundance as pets, they are listed as “vulnerable”, due to increasing pollution and habitat destruction. Thailand remains the primary breeder and exporter of bettas for the global aquarium market.

Some people in Malaysia and Thailand are known to have collected wild bettas at least by the 19th century, observing their aggressive nature and pitting them against each other in gambling matches akin to cockfights.

In the wild, betta spar for only a few minutes before one fish retreats.  Domesticated betta, bred specifically for heightened aggression, can engage for much longer, with winners determined by a willingness to continue fighting; once a fish retreats, the match is over. Combat is characterised by fin nipping, flared gills, extended fins, and intensified colour. Fights to the death are rare, so bets are placed on the bravery of the fish rather than survival.

Fighting fish go back a long way in Thailand, first surfacing during the reign of Rama I (1782-1809).  But it wasn’t until the rule of King Rama III (1824-1851), who regulated and taxed the matches and collected fighting fish of his own that their fame spread overseas.  In 1840, he gave some of his prized fish to Danish physician Theodore Edward Cantor, who worked in the Bengal medical service. 

Nine years later, Cantor published the first recorded article describing these fish, giving them the name Macropodus pugnax. In 1909, British ichthyologist Charles Tate Regan found there was a related species already named Macropodus pugnax, and renamed the domesticated Siamese fighting fish, Betta splendens, or “splendid fighter”.  Within decades they became popular as ornamental fish in the West.

ABOUT THAILAND’S NATIONAL AQUATIC ANIMAL

They remain a symbol of Thainess around the globe, even inspiring the national costume worn by Thai contestant Amanda Obdam during the recent Miss Universe contest.

Today’s ornamental betta are far more beautiful than in years gone by when the fish were bred purely for fighting, like cockerels or bulls. They usually grows to a length of about 7 cm (2.8 in). Although aquarium specimens are widely known for their brilliant colors and large, flowing fins, the natural coloration is generally green, brown and grey, and the fins of wild specimens are short. In the wild, they exhibit strong colours only when agitated. In captivity, they have been selectively bred to display a vibrant array of colors and tail types.

Breeders now make a good living from ornamental fighting fish, selling specimens to both Thai and foreign customers for impressive sums of money.  Fish with unique and colourful markings fetch the highest prices.

Low-priced fish are what you see sold in [Bangkok] pet markets such as Chatuchak or Thonburi, but away from shops and pet markets, much of the trade in fighting fish happens on social media. Trading and prices have been subdued since Covid-19 arrived in Thailand, although demand from abroad may have helped soften the impact of the virus crisis.

Most of his foreign customers live in Southeast Asia, namely Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam and Cambodia, but orders for fish from as far away as Europe and America.

That should come as no surprise since Thailand still produces the best quality betta in the world, the current trend is for specimens with dark pigmentation or dazzling scales.

Despite their short average lifespan of three to five years, betta are a tough species. Owners can leave the fish at home alone for up to five days, as long as they have fresh water and adequate food.  Bettas are exceptionally tolerant of low

oxygen levels and poor water quality, owing to their special labyrinth organ, a characteristic that allows for the intake of surface air.

FOOTNOTE: A scene in the James Bond film From Russia with Love shows three Siamese fighting fish in an aquarium as the villain Ernst Stavro Blofeld likens the modus operandi of his criminal organisation, SPECTRE, to one of the fish that observes as the other two fight to the death, then kills the weakened victor.