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Mission possible: saving the tiger fish

Mission possible: saving the tiger fish

Siem Reap piscine enthusiast Tomoyuki Sato is on a one man mission to save the endangered tiger fish of Tonlé Sap, as well as produce the first ever definitive book on Cambodian freshwater fish.

He also owns Botia Life, a Japanese restaurant in Angkor Night Market’s food court, and services aquariums for Temple Town businesses including Yokohama restaurant, Antanue Hotel and Passaggio Boutique Hotel. Such is his reputation as the ‘go-to’ man for fish that Phnom Penh’s Sakura Tei Japanese restaurant recently commissioned him to create an aquarium.

From a young age Tomoyuki was always fascinated by fish and had an aquarium of his own. After studying marine biotechnology in Osaka, he managed an aquarium in Kyoto before working for ten years at Japan’s largest freshwater fish aquarium, in Lake Biwa Museum, in Shiga Prefecture.

The 36 year-old first came to Cambodia twelve years ago to research the distribution of freshwater fish.

“When I worked in the aquarium in Japan there was a corner dedicated to Cambodian fish,” he says. “When I saw this corner I wondered if they really were all from Cambodia.

I doubted, so I came here to do research.”

He returned three years ago and began work on an encyclopedia of local freshwater fish, the first of its kind. The book, Freshwater Fishes of Cambodia, will contain details of over 400 types of fish, including new species he has discovered, such as a tiny, eel-like ‘bottom feeder’ fish. The book will have photographs of each fish, plus text outlining its distribution range and habitat.

“I have been researching freshwater fish in Cambodia,” he says. “Where they live, how many kinds of fish there are. I carry out distribution surveys in Tonlé Sap and also in the Mekong.”  

The tome will be published in English and Japanese, and he plans to sell it in Japan and Cambodia. The publication date has not yet been determined.

During the course of Tomoyuki’s research it became apparent that the datnioides pulcher, or tiger fish, was on the verge of extinction due to its enormous popularity as an
ornamental fish, and the deterioration of its environment.

“I discovered that some Cambodian fish are almost gone, such as the tiger fish. In ten years’ time that fish will be gone, nothing. So I want to protect the tiger fish and start a breeding program.”

Tomoyuki says the tiger fish is so popular all over the world, particularly in Asia, that it has become incredibly expensive and rare. His wish is to lobby to stop people catching them for aquariums, as well as instigate the breeding program.

In time, if the breeding program is successful, he would like to educate locals in how to breed tiger fish.

Tomoyuki’s latest project is his ‘Save the Datnioides’ t-shirt that he designed.  The t-shirts depict the black and yellow striped tiger fish and proceeds go towards his research.  

“The t-shirts are sold in my restaurant and also in the Café de Sora shop in the new night market,” he says. “Cambodian people like this design. Many people buy it.” ​

For more information on the Save the Datnioides Project please visit: