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The shark ray is vanishing from our oceans—and being made into jewelry

A trader displays a silver ring decorated with bony thorn from bowmouth guitarfish also known as shark ray (Rhina ancylostoma). Bowmouth guitarfish is currently listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List, but the trades for this body part of this ray centered in Thailand are raising concerns about the survival of the unique ray.

A traditional shipwright in Krabi wears a ring with a bowmouth thorn, believed to keep wearers safe from storms at sea and other dangers. Some thorns are carved with the Garuda, a Buddhist symbol of protection. The culture of wearing bowmouth thorns in Thailand had never been reported in literatures prior to the recent study by Pytka et al., (2023), but based on anecdotal interviews, it is dated back for at least 3 generations.

Rows of rings decorated with thorns from bowmouth guitarfish are displayed for sale at a souvenir shop located inside a national park in Krabi, Thailand. Although the rings are not a sought-after item for the general public, being more favored by niche customers, these thorns are commonly seen being sold openly around seaside towns despite its problematic legality issue.

Rings mounted with thorns from bowmouth guitarfish are arrayed at a jewelry shop in Phuket, Thailand. According to the recently published study by Pytka et al., (2023), an online trade in thorn rings and other items, such as bracelets, has been thriving openly for over a decade.

A trader in Krabi displays bowmouth guitarfish thorn bracelets and unworked strips. Making bowmouth products has been illegal in Thailand since 2018, when the fish was granted full protection under domestic legislation, but the traders also admitted to getting new supplies from overseas.

Strips of dried bowmouth guitarfish "thorns" are for sale at a souvenir shop in Kawthaung, Myanmar, one of seven official trading posts on the Thai border. The bony growths on these increasingly rare fish are used to make jewelry in Thailand, where Thai buyers regularly smuggle these body parts back across the border to process them into jewelry.

Thorns growing on a ridge above the eye are sliced off a bowmouth guitarfish, leaving translucent cartilage of the skull exposed at a coastal landing site in Ranong, a province in southern Thailand and one of the largest fish landing sites of this Southeast Asian country.

Juvenile bowmouth guitarfishes are readied for auction at a fish landing site in Ranong, Thailand. The thorn market is likely a byproduct of the more lucrative fin trade of sharks and shark-like rays that is also prevalent in Southeast Asian waters.

A maimed bowmouth guitarfish caught in gill nets with a missing tail is treated with a high-power laser to aid wound healing by a veterinarian at Phuket Marine Biological Center. Although most of these critically endangered rays are caught in non-selective fishing gears such as gill nets and bottom trawls, the catch is often retained by fishers due to the demand for the illegal thorns and fins.

Veterinarians perform a necropsy in an operating room on Rosey, a female bowmouth guitarfish who was rescued but died later while being rehabilitated at the Veterinary Medical Aquatic Animals Research Center, at Chulalongkorn University, in Bangkok. Due to the rarity of these rays, the carcass provides more information into the poorly-known biology of the bowmouth guitarfish.

A dried skin with intact thorn ridges displayed by seller at a souvenir shop in Krabi is a unique piece among the bowmouth products that are mostly decorated rings and thorn strips.

Sellers must provide proof of registration for all bowmouth products, such as these rings on sale at a jewelry shop in Phuket, Thailand, but compliance varies widely. Many sales are illegal, according to new research, while monitoring and enforcement barely exist in reality to address the issue at this time.

An overlooked online trade for bracelets and rings made from the bowmouth guitarfish is increasing pressure on the critically endangered animal.

Read on National Geographic
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