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Fishing, Chinese medicine, and a crazy-looking snout are driving sawfish to extinction

sawfish green iucn endangered species
David Morgan
Populations of green sawfish, which can reach 7m in length, have shrunk 80% in 30 years.
By Gwynn Guilford
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

For millennia, the sawfish could comfortably claim to have won the evolutionary lottery. Its long, saw-shaped snout is lined with teeth and so packed with nerves that it detects the slightest of movements, enabling the ray-like creature to impale or bludgeon passing prey in a single swipe as it lies camouflaged against the seafloor.

IUCN Shark Specialist Group
How sawfish hunt.

But the sawfish’s Darwinian secret weapon is now ensnaring the creature in fishing nets all over the world, and is fueling rapacious demand from traditional medicine practitioners. Of the planet’s 1,200 sharks and rays, the five species of sawfish are by far the most threatened.

Sudeep Shenoy
What got tangled in a net in Kerala.

Guinea and Guinea Bissau are now pushing to include sawfish in an international treaty that will prompt more protections. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which manages the endangered species list, is also launching a global strategy to save the sawfish (pdf).

They had better work fast: once common in 92 countries, sawfish are now extinct in 21—and perhaps as many as 42.

Caught by a nose

Fishing nets are their biggest enemy. Sawfish rostrums—that’s the official name for that tooth-lined snout—snag on nets very easily. Extracting the fish tends to damage fishing gear, and to recoup those losses, fishermen often sell them illegally instead. Back in 2008, it was reported that a Kenyan fisherman could retire after catching a single sawfish, selling its fin-set for around $4,000 and its rostrum for up to $1,450, says the IUCN.

The big business of sawfish parts: fins, meds and cockfighting spurs

That gets to the second part of the problem: demand for sawfish as eye-catching curios. For instance, one recently sold on this site for $280:

Screenshot from

Though it’s illegal to sell them internationally, enforcement is lax.  Another big payday comes from sawfish dorsal fins. Despite the fact that sawfish parts have no proven medicinal value, traditional Chinese medicine prescribes sawfish eggs, liver and bile to cure things like diarrhea and scabies. Sawfish egg extracts sell online (link in Chinese) for 88 yuan ($14) per kilograms, and various sawfish parts are used in Brazil, Mexico, Kenya, Eritrea, Yemen, Bangladesh, India and Iran to treat a range of maladies.

Latin American countries also prize rostrum teeth as spurs for cockfighting, with prices on Peruvian and Ecuadorian websites ranging from $80 to $220 for a single tooth, says IUCN.

Aquarium show-stealers

AP Photo/Itsuo Inouye
A Green sawfish swims at Shinagawa Aqua Stadium aquarium in Tokyo.

Sawfish are such eye-catching and enormous creatures—they can reach up to 24 feet (7.3 meters)—that they fetch a high price in the aquarium trade. Recent reports have two of the biggest species selling for $5,400 per meter. This isn’t necessarily a threat to wild species, though, as specialists have recently been successful at breeding them in captivity.

Driven from their homes

The ultimate threat to sawfish may be the destruction of their habitats. All species typically live around estuaries or areas near the shore, particularly when young, meaning that coastal development and pollution poses a major threat. Species that live in freshwater while young have been driven out by dams, particularly in Southeast Asia. Mangrove forests, now an average of 35% smaller than they were in 1980, are also critical habitats.

IUCN Shark Specialist Group

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