The recent killing of a whale shark on the Gujarat Coast has once again brought forth the threat these gentle sea giants face, despite government and wildlife activists’ efforts to save them. Mike Pandey whose film first shed light on the merciless killings of the whale shark and its large population in India, tells Smitha R about conservation efforts, where we have gone wrong and what can be done now for the world’s largest extant fish
Kick-starting whale shark protection efforts in India
My film ‘Shores of Silence...Whale Sharks in India’, led to the discovery of whale sharks in our waters in such large numbers. It also brought to light the shocking slaughter of these creatures in great numbers. The film triggered off a national and international response which finally resulted in the protection of the whale shark under the Wildlife Act, 1972. This brought it at par with the tiger and rhinoceros. The film was shown over a couple of years on National Geographic channel as well as screened across India.
On it being declared as schedule-I species
The legislation has helped and the film has been in successful in making people understand the role this gentle giant of the ocean plays in the food chain. Lots of youngsters and fishermen have now joined in to protect the whale shark. Indians don’t relish the oily meat of the whale shark. Most of them were interested in its liver oil.
Hunting of whale sharks in India post the ban
The ban proved effective as whale shark hunting had completely stopped. Its slaughter was a crime and attracted imprisonment of up to 7 years, so fishermen became wary. Our film also led to global protection and ban of import or export of whale shark meat by CITES, an international body comprising 186 countries. This gave total protection to the fish. In Gujarat, if a whale got trapped in fishing nets, the fishermen cut off the nets in order to protect it. The government compensates them for this loss. It is disturbing to learn of whale sharks being killed again.
Hotspot for the hunting
The biggest hunting ground is the along the coast of Gujarat, off Porbandar and up to Bhetdwarka.
On the whale shark found with its liver missing.
It was a very young whale, still a baby, and obviously it was killed and gutted at high sea. The liver was removed and the carcass, which was inedible and of no use since anyone seen with it can be arrested, was left to drift away and it landed on our coastline.
On whale sharks being hunted
The presence of the young whale shark on the Gujarat coast is evidence that the crime is still being committed despite the Wildlife Protection Act. Laws by themselves are not enough; enforcement and people’s participation is needed if we are to succeed.
On the species’ conservation in Gujarat
Post the film exposure and legislation coming into force, I think the Gujarat government set off with right intentions and made all efforts to protect whale sharks. But just holding seminars and workshops is not enough. Livelihood concerns of local communities and gauging the true value of whale sharks is equally important. We gave solutions in our film 10 years ago, including whale shark tourism, eco tourism and making fishermen partners, guides and using their trawlers for whale shark sighting. If such tourism generates sustainable income for them, they would naturally protect it.
I had a blueprint and complete proposal for the government, including a tourism centre equipped with flat-bottomed boats and dive experts. We had proposed whale shark sighting centers at Veraval and Betdwarka. Red tape and lack of vision tends to cripple the most viable proposals.
Vested interests are the greatest stumbling blocks.
Gujarat has the potential to be the largest whale shark destination in the world. Tourists pay up to $3,000 to dive along with whale sharks in Australia and $500 just for a boat ride. We had submitted a water tight proposal. Also, our whales don’t need to migrate because waters here remain warm throughout the year, which would mean round-the-year tourism and revenue generation.
Apprehending whale shark killers
Killing of whale sharks is a punishable crime. Conservation of endangered species is the bigger picture. The crime should be prevented from happening by involving local communities that are very poor. When it is a question of survival, a hungry stomach will kill without compunction. Experts need to be brought in to create a sustainable solution. The coast guard, citizens and local communities; we all need to unite if conservation has to succeed.