An Inside Perspective From India’s Whale Shark Conference

Source: Maldives Whale Shark Research Programme/Wildlife Trust of India

Photo: Jeremy Bishop/Unsplash

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On the 14th & 15th March 2019 the Wildlife Trust of India and Gujarat Forest Department hosted a whale shark conference in the Gujarat capital of Gandhinagar, sponsored by Tata Chemicals Ltd, MoEF&CC, IUCN-India, EGREE Foundation and Mangrove Foundation. The Maldives Whale Shark Research Programme (MWSRP) was amongst the invitees. Here, the Co-Founder of MWSRP, Jim Hancock, talks about this exciting and aspirational meeting.

“I’ve been to a fair few conferences over the years. Most are pretty dry affairs. None that I can recall included an unexpected and very animated act by professional street performers! Despite it being in the local language of Gujarati, the performance nonetheless managed to engage, delight and surprise an international group of scientists. But then this particular conference was in India, the home of the unexpected, engaging and delightfully surprising! The performance was the culmination of a day that had highlighted the changing fortunes for whale sharks caught up in the gill net fishery off India’s Gujarat coast. A story of one of the more remarkable and inventive conservation initiatives ever created.

whale shark

Photo: Maldives Whale Shark Research Programme/Wildlife Trust of India

A generation ago, fishers along Saurashtra coast used to hunt whale sharks using harpoons for its liver and fins. More recently, whale sharks were also landed after becoming accidentally entangled in near shore gill nets.

The recorded numbers of sharks being landed climbed over the years, peaking on ‘Black Friday’, September 15th 2000, with 40 whale sharks ending up on the docks in that 24hr period alone. It was against this bleak backdrop of landings that the ‘Save the Whale Shark’ campaign, spearheaded by the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) began in 2004.

While the campaign employed a multi-pronged assault on ambivalence and opportunism, the master stroke employed was to tap into local tradition and religion to effect a dramatic change in perception of these gentle giants.

In Gujarat, as in many places in India, a young woman who is ready to deliver her first child will often ‘come home’, making the trip from her marital home to the comfort and familiarity of her parental home for shelter and protection at this critical moment in life. So popular religious leader Morari Bapu began to teach that whale sharks visiting the Gujarat coast were a deity. Not only a deity, but one that was also adhering to this age old tradition of ‘coming home’. The clear message put out was ‘would fishermen really harm a deity at this most vulnerable time of its life?’. It was immediately clear that this simple comparison struck a cord with the fishermen. But making sure as many fishermen as possible heard this message in a way that could bypass illiteracy was a challenge. Enter the street perfomers. The very same group who had captivated us on stage on the first day of the conference had previously visited every single town in coastal Gujarat to perform the same routine and convey this message. They performed this routine over a thousand times, accompanied at every stop by a 40 foot inflatable whale shark replica. And it was a sensational success.

whale shark

Photo: Maldives Whale Shark Research Programme/Wildlife Trust of India

For the fishermen, the whale sharks went from being a semi-lucrative opportunistic resource to being named ‘Vhali’. In conjunction with a reimbursement scheme, entangled sharks were cut free from precious nets, not cut up for food. Signs showing the pride in these animals choosing to visit the Gujarat coast sprang up in harbours. It was a conservationists dream. Hearing this as the only Brit in the room during the conference, all I could think was ‘bloody well done chaps’!

Over the 15 years that followed, 707 whale sharks were officially recorded as being cut free from nets. Estimates of actual releases that were not formally recorded run as high as 5-7 thousand! Fishermen used cameras provided by the WTI to prove they had really caught and released whale sharks when seeking compensation for their damaged equipment. Technological progress being what it is, as of the end of March 2019 a mobile app will allow for faster reporting. And behind all this were the men and women of the WTI. Comprising social specialists who devised and actioned efforts to continue this good will. Marine biologists and field operators who leap onto boats and help the fishermen remove the sharks and satellite tag them where possible. And an ambitious leadership team who forged corporate and governmental relationships that collectively dragged the plight of whale sharks in Indian waters into the limelight.

Of course, it is not all light and honey. Gujarat makes up only the north west coast of this vast country and conservation efforts in other areas have not been so wholly adopted or effective as they have here. However, the second day of the conference was structured to address these challenges.

The bold ambition was laid down to not only ensure protection for whale sharks around the whole Indian coast, but to engage stakeholders in other countries to form a northern Indian Ocean regional working group that would collaborate on wider scale research and protective measures for this highly mobile fish. This conference was just the grand reveal of this scheme, with many hurdles to be overcome in future before it can be realised, but the passion and desire is there to give it a good shot at least.

whale shark

Photo: Maldives Whale Shark Research Programme/Wildlife Trust of India

After the formal conference had finished, the WTI invited a small group of us attendees to go and meet the fisher folk, see their working area and hear their stories. It was a remarkable outing that really laid out how much these fishermen put on the line for the conservation of this species. It transpires that despite the compensation for the damaged nets, should a whale shark be entangled and the net be sacrificed to release it, the delay in getting the new nets up and running means the fishermen still lose out on the number of days at sea they have with a full complement of nets to use. These are not wealthy people and yet despite knowing it will cost them, still they readily cut their nets and make all efforts to set the sharks free in good condition. It was genuinely humbling.

A future conservation goal and a driving force have now been put in place, that vital single step with which all journeys must begin. Roughly a year on from this conference there will be another gathering of conservationists in Gujarat and it will be enthralling to see what has been achieved by then. History here suggests it will be quite a lot!”

whale shark

Photo: Maldives Whale Shark Research Programme/Wildlife Trust of India

Article via Maldives Whale Shark Research Programme, and Wildlife Trust of India