31 January 2009

How the whale sharks were saved in Gujarat, India

“Whale sharks come to the Saurashtra’s coast to breed during winter. It comes to its parents’ home to deliver. In that sense, it is just like our daughter. And how can we possibly kill our own daughter?” is one of the messages of a campaign to persuade fishermen to release whale sharks caught in their nets.

Thousands of fishermen on the Saurashtra and Kutch coast in Gujarat are now saving whale sharks, courtesy the Save Whale Shark campaign launched by the WTI and the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) in 2004. Since then, the fishermen have saved close to 100 whale sharks, releasing the giant fish soon after they are trapped.

Sharks’ tale
Uday Mahurkar, India Times 30 Jan 09:
In September last year, fisherman Amrutlal Chauhan and helpers spread their nets in the sea near the Saurashtra coast, hoping to catch some fish. But what got trapped in the net took them by surprise. It was a 20-ft whale shark. A timely call was made to the local ‘Save Whale Shark’ campaign activist Dinesh Goswami who along with personnel of the forest and fisheries departments came to the spot to cut the nets open and set the giant fish free.

Had a similar situation presented itself a few years back, Chauhan would have feasted with his family and friends after catching a barrel (a whale shark is called a barrel since it is caught with one). A local fish trader would shell out Rs 2 lakh for the giant fish, and in turn, export its meat and flanks. Sold at a high price in South-east Asian countries, the meat of the whale shark is a delicacy and the oil it yields is sold at Rs 500 a kg. A Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) survey reveals that over 500 whale sharks were hunted by fishermen on the Saurashtra coast in 2000.

Saving the whale shark is a remarkable turnaround story. Today, Chauhan is among thousands of fishermen on the Saurashtra and Kutch coast in Gujarat who are saving whale sharks, courtesy the Save Whale Shark campaign launched by the WTI and the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) in 2004. Since then, the fishermen have saved close to 100 whale sharks, releasing the giant fish soon after they are trapped.

The campaign is an example now, involving a large cross-section of society including animal protection activists, government machinery, corporate entities like Tata Chemicals Ltd and Gujarat Heavy Chemical Ltd and leading figures. Says Dhiresh Joshi, coordinator of the Gujarat unit of WTI, “It is an awesome experience to see the gentle giant in front of your eyes.”

WTI’s masterstroke was involving the hugely popular Ramayana Kathakar Morari Bapu, whose mass appeal, particularly in Gujarat, is almost unmatched, as the brand ambassador of the campaign. In his first press conference in 2004 after joining the campaign, Bapu appealed to the fishermen, “Whale sharks come to the Saurashtra’s coast to breed during winter. It comes to its parents’ home to deliver. In that sense, it is just like our daughter. And how can we possibly kill our own daughter?”

The rhetoric left many mesmerised, and such was the impact that activists like Goswami of the Prakriti Parivar Trust (PPT), who is now at the forefront of the campaign, joined hands with the forest and fisheries departments and private businessmen like Prakash Jadav to plunge into the campaign, often spending money from their own pockets. Both Goswami and Jadav organised a ‘Save Whale Shark’ yatra that targeted coastal fishing villages.

The WTI was itself inspired by a documentary, Shores of Silence, made by wildlife filmmaker Mike Pandey. The documentary depicted the travails of the whale shark, an endangered species which was being hunted by fishermen on the Saurashtra coast when it came to breed in warm water. Shores of Silence won the Green Oscar and played a key role in convincing the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests in banning fishing of the whale shark in Indian waters.

Pandey was attracted to the project because of the method of entrapment using hooks and empty barrels which would prevent the fish from escaping by diving deep under. The fishermen then would drag it to the coast where they would have already struck a deal with a fish trader who would later sell its various parts for substantial sums of money. Says Kamlesh Chamadia, a wealthy fisherman and a fish trader, “There’s not a single body part of the whale shark which can’t be used by humans and doesn’t fetch a price. Before the current campaign began, the fishermen rejoiced every time they caught a whale shark.”

Saving the whale shark also opens up avenues for India to explore its potential for sea tourism. It is a major tourism industry in Philippines, Mexico, some African countries but mainly in Australia where it is a major revenue spinner. Aspiring to develop coastal tourism in Saurashtra along Australian lines, Chief Minister Narendra Modi has been pressing for the development of whale shark tourism. In 2006, the Government had announced incentives, including compensation of Rs 25,000 for fishermen who incurred losses due to any damage done to their nets in rescuing a whale shark.

When the giant fish gets entangled in a net, it swirls around in an attempt to get free. In the process, it entangles several other nets that are usually placed close to each other in the sea. The nets belong to different fishing groups and are damaged beyond repair when fishermen cut them open to release the fish. The damage is first assessed by the Fisheries Department and then the Forest Department releases the compensation once it gets the figures of the estimated damage.

Joshi believes the campaign has been largely successful because it has been woven into the Gujarat pride campaign, much like the Gir lion project. The campaign seeks to give local fishermen a sense of pride at the prospect of saving a whale shark. Says H.S. Patel, president of leading cement manufacturer, Ambuja Cement, located near Verawal, “It has created a win-win feeling for everyone. We also plan to join this campaign.” With support pouring in from all quarters, the campaign has charted out a new path in wildlife protection.

Story so far

  • A WTI survey reveals that in 2000, over 500 whale sharks were hunted by fishermen on the Saurashtra Coast.
  • A 2000 documentary,Shores of Silence, plays a key role in convincing the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests in banning the fishing of whale shark in Indian waters.
  • In 2004, the WTI and IFAW launch the ‘Save Whale Shark’ campaign.
  • Local activists and businessmen join the campaign. Ramayana Kathakar Morari Bapu is appointed the ambassador of the campaign.
  • The state Government grants monetary incentives to local fishermen for damage to boats and nets.
  • So far the fishermen on the Saurashtra coast have saved 100 whale sharks.

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