Thailand names Siamese fighting fish national aquatic symbol

One of the most popular fish in home aquariums in the United States and the world, the colorful and increasingly rare Siamese fighting fish was named Thailand’s national aquatic animal last week, joining the mighty elephant as beloved animal symbols of the Kingdom.

Most fish aficionados favor Siamese fighting fish because of their striking appearance and colors. They are usually vivid red or blue with large iridescent flowing fins and tails. They are also known in the West as Betta fish, and the Betta Fish Center website said they are “the aquarium enthusiast’s most popular fish.”

The Bangkok Post wrote that the fish inspires feelings of nostalgia among older Thais. The Kingdom was known as Siam until 1939 when it officially changed its name to Thailand. The change was intended to promote a more inclusive national identity, as the Siamese are one branch of the Thai people.

It was the government’s National Identity Committee that first proposed naming the Siamese fighting fish the national aquatic animal. That proposal was seconded by the National Cultural Committee and then approved by the cabinet.

Collecting Siamese fighting fish was common among youngsters in years gone by, and their owners would often pit the males against each other in “sparring matches.” Male Siamese fighting fish are very territorial and aggressive and will attack other males until one retreats or is injured.

To this day, some people still gamble on the outcome of Siamese fish fights in Thailand and the West. The Betta Fish Center wrote that the fishes’ “natural behavior has provoked owners to create a Siamese fighting fish business. Now many are breeding Bettas for fighting and taking bets on which one wins.”

As fish fighting is illegal in the United States, these bouts are underground – or underwater in this case.

Despite their popularity, Siamese fighting fish, which are native to the rivers of Southeast Asia including Thailand’s Chao Phraya River, have become increasingly rare in the wild. Those who love them are hoping the designation will lead to stronger conservation efforts.

“Most Thais when they were young, especially in rural areas, caught the fish from canals and ponds,” Sakda Sihapat, a caretaker at the Siamese Fighting Fish Gallery in Samut Prakan province just outside of Bangkok, told AFP newswire. “You have to go to a really virgin swamp to find this fish, and there aren’t many anymore.”