The bowmouth guitarfish, or shark ray, is an odd-looking sea creature. Its tail resembles a shark’s, but its thick body merges into a flat, ray-like head studded with pointy, bony growths, or “thorns.”
Many endangered sharks and rays are targeted worldwide for their fins, which are prized in Chinese cuisine. The critically endangered bowmouth guitarfish is also threatened by demand for a different luxury item: jewelry. Its thorns are sliced off and made into ornate rings and bracelets.
Once found across the Indo-Pacific, bowmouth guitarfish are closely related to sawfish and giant guitarfish—shark-like rays that are collectively some of the world’s most threatened marine fish—and have declined by over 80 percent in recent decades
Sales of bowmouth thorn jewelry, advertised online and concentrated in Thailand, have been thriving for at least a decade, according to a new study published in Conservation Science and Practice.
This trade, much of it illegal, has long gone unrecognized and undocumented, says Jennifer Pytka, who led the research as part of her masters degree in marine biology at Bangor University, in Wales. Apart from a few reports of thorn jewelry from Southeast Asia, there was little to go on, she says. “We really didn’t know what we were going to find.”
A systematic online search revealed more than 977 advertisements for bowmouth products, some dating back to 2012. Most were for single thorns, either set in rings or sold separately. Other offerings included bracelets, bowmouth jaws, and a few whole fish prepared by taxidermists. Two-thirds of the listings appeared on e-commerce platforms such as Lazada and Shopee, with another third listed on Facebook Marketplace.
Nearly all the sellers were based in Thailand, with some others in the United States, Italy, Taiwan, Australia, the United Kingdom, and Canada.
International trade in bowmouth products has been regulated since 2019 under the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which requires every cross-border shipment to be logged by authorities. Trade is only allowed if it doesn’t affect the survival of the species—a difficult requirement to meet as the full extent of trade is still unknown.
Online wildlife trafficking has exploded during the past few decades. And it isn’t relegated to the dark web: High-value endangered species are advertised openly on social media and e-commerce sites. (In contrast, most dark web ads are for species with known drug properties, such as hallucinogenic plants and fungi.)
“It’s disturbing to see an organized trade for a species that is already dwindling,” says Matthew McDavitt, a board member of the Sawfish Conservation Society who first alerted Pytka and her supervisors about the existence of bowmouth thorn jewelry.
What’s driving the trade?
Bowmouth thorns have cultural significance in Buddhism, the predominant religion in Thailand. Made into rings, they’re believed to protect the wearer from dangerous waters and other hazards. Some thorns are carved with the Garuda, a Buddhist symbol of protection.
The thorn market is likely a byproduct of the more lucrative global trade in fins, and those of the shark-like rays are especially sought after. "People everywhere, in the most remote villages, are on the lookout for these animals because of how much their fins are worth,” says Luke Warwick, director of shark and ray conservation at the nonprofit Wildlife Conservation Society. Demand for bowmouth thorns is very concerning, because “the thorns put additional value on the species’ head, literally.”
It’s a similar story for sawfish, close relatives of the bowmouth that have been hunted almost to extinction for their fins. A secondary trade for the animal’s tooth-studded “saws,” which are believed to repel demons, has existed in Southeast Asia for hundreds of years, McDavitt says.
With bowmouth numbers plummeting in Thailand, traders are sourcing thorns from elsewhere. Pytka says she’s heard of thorn removal happening in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Myanmar. According to her interviews with traders, workers bring loose thorns across the Thai border in their pockets.
‘A breakdown in enforcement’
In 2018, Thailand gave full protection to the bowmouth guitarfish under its Wild Animal Preservation and Protection Act. All existing thorn jewelry had to be registered with the Department of Fisheries, and making new pieces was prohibited. Registered items could be traded after November 2018, but only within Thailand.
More than 10,000 bowmouth products were registered with the Department of Fisheries in 2018, according to WildAid, a nonprofit working to reduce illicit wildlife trade. There are no records of Thailand importing bowmouth products since 2019, according to National Geographic’s review of the CITES trade database.
But, says Pytka, “there's definitely some trade going on within Thailand that is absolutely illegal according to their legislation.”
Compliance with trade rules is low in online marketplaces. In Pytka’s study, most ads were dated after the November 2018 cutoff, but only 36 percent came with the required registration. A quarter of sellers explicitly said the item was unregistered, in clear violation of Thai law. (Her investigation didn’t include private groups or count advertisements without photos or a description of the product.)
“The fact that the thorns are openly available, and not all have registration, indicates there’s a breakdown in enforcement somewhere,” Pytka says.
Some thorn sellers also offered products from other high-profile species protected under CITES, such as tigers, elephants, bears, seahorses, and rosewood.
The Department of Fisheries did not respond to National Geographic’s request for comment.
Combating online wildlife trafficking
In 2018, a group of tech companies launched the Coalition to End Wildlife Trafficking Online, with the goal of reducing illicit wildlife trade by 80 percent by 2020. Instead, sales increased on Facebook during that time, according to a report by the nonprofit Alliance to Counter Crime Online.
Facebook previously told National Geographic it has policies and features in place to “prohibit ads and content attempting to trade, sell or purchase endangered animals.”
Nevertheless, bowmouth products remain readily available. “I’m confident that I could go onto Facebook right now and buy a couple hundred thorns,” Pytka says.
Shopee and Lazada did not respond to National Geographic’s request for comment.
Tech companies could automate tracking of online ads for bowmouth thorns, which are visually distinctive and easy to identify, Pytka says, adding that this would help establish illicit supply chains and pinpoint weaknesses in enforcement.
Customs and other government agencies need to be made aware of the thorn trade—and quickly, Warwick says. “They’ve been trained in shark fin identification and are looking for them. But no one is looking for these thorns. I just hope it’s not too late for the bowmouth guitarfish. It can’t take any more pressure.”