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Education, compensation, and spiritual outreach protect threatened whale sharks

  • In the 1980s and 90s, whale sharks were being killed in their hundreds off the western coast of India. Demand for the shark’s fins and meat in south-east Asia meant a fisherman could earn as much as $7,000 for a large shark.
  • In 2001, India declared the whale shark a protected species. In 2004, the Whale Shark Conservation Project began its effort to spread awareness of the ban among the fishermen in the state of Gujarat, where the killing was taking place, and to convert the fishermen from hunters to protectors of the fish.
  • Through a combination of community outreach, participation of a popular spiritual leader, and financial compensation, the community was convinced to stop killing the sharks. Since then, 710 whale sharks have also been rescued after getting entangled in fishing nets, while scientists have been able to tag eight sharks for research purposes.

In the 1980s and 1990s, whale sharks (Rhincodon typus) were being slaughtered by the hundreds in the waters off the coast of Gujarat, a state in western India famous for being the last refuge of the Asiatic Lion. While the lions were protected under the Indian Wildlife Protection Act (WPA), 1972, the whale sharks were not.

A whale shark from the Indian Ocean. Image by Abe Khao Lak, CC 4.0.

Demand for the shark’s fins and meat in south-east Asia drove a roaring export trade. According to one study published in 2000 in the journal Current Science, over 1,700 whale sharks were killed between 1988 and 1998.  A further 600 were killed between 1999 and 2000, according to another study by WWF-India published in 2001. A single whale shark could earn a fisherman anywhere from $2,500 to $7,000, depending on its size.

“It was happening because of greed,” Tulsibhai Gohel (bhai is an honorific that shows respect), the 42-year-old president of the Sagar Putra Foundation, a local fisherman’s association, told Mongabay. “We were getting so much money, it was impossible not to kill them.”

In 2000, a documentary by Mike Pandey called Shores of Silence, which included footage of men cutting off a whale shark’s dorsal fin while the fish was still alive, drew widespread attention to the plight of these gentle giants. The government was lobbied and a year later the fish was added to Schedule 1 of the WPA, giving it the highest legal protection in India.

Awareness campaign

However, awareness of the shark’s protected status remained limited in Gujarat. In order to spread the message, the Whale Shark Conservation Project (Gujarat) was founded in 2004 as a partnership between Tata Chemicals, a public company, the Wildlife Trust of India, an NGO, the International Fund for Animal Welfare, and the Gujarat Forest Department.

“To lose a species that has been estimated to be as old as the dinosaurs, and about whom enough knowledge has not been gained, would be a big loss. This prompted Tata Chemicals Ltd. to partner with the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) to embark on the Whale Shark Conservation project,” Alka Talwar, the head of sustainability and corporate social responsibility at Tata Chemicals, told Mongabay.

The port of Veraval, one of 5 fishing villages participating in the Whale Shark Conservation Project. Image by Tariq Engineer for Mongabay.

Tata Chemicals has provided about $700,000 in funding since the project’s inception as part of its corporate social responsibility, WTI the scientific and conservation expertise, and the Gujarat Forest department legal sanction and economic support for the communities. The collaboration among a public company, an NGO, and the state is one of the project’s two pillars; the other is the fishing community. “The model has been so successful because we were able to convert the community from hunters to saviours,” Farukhkha Husenkha, WTI’s assistant manager, sociology for the project, told Mongabay.

Husenkha joined the project in 2012 and operates out of Veraval, a fishing town that is the field base of the project. The project extends for roughly 160 kilometers (110 miles), and includes four other major fishing villages: Mangrol and Porbandar to the northwest of Veraval, and Sutrapada and Dhamlej to the southeast. The fishing seasons runs from September to June and can be quite lucrative, with fishermen earning up to $45,000 in a good year.

In addition to the ban on killing the sharks, the fishing communities have been taught to rescue the shark if it gets entangled in their nets. The nets are 20 meters (66 feet) wide and 5 meters (16 feet) deep. As many 100 nets can be cast into the sea and left overnight, creating a wall over a mile long.

Husenkha is one of three WTI employees in the region. He is joined by biologist Charan Kumar Paidi and field officer Prakash Doriya, a former fisherman who has been trained to help rescue and tag the sharks. “My role is to make sure that the fishermen’s motivation [to protect the shark] is maintained,” Husenkha said.

The project has documented 710 whale shark rescues as of March 2019. Eight sharks have also been tagged for research purposes, while five whale shark pups have been logged by the local fishing community. According to BC Choudhury, the lead investigator of the project, the pups prove that whale sharks breed in the Arabian Sea off the western coast of India.

The Project brings together a public company, a major scientific NGO, and state, and the local fishing community.
These two photos show Project staff and fishers rescuing and tagging a whale shark in December, 2017. Images by Farukhkha Hunsekha.

A spiritual approach

To win the hearts of the fishing communities, Morari Bapu – a spiritual leader who has a large following in Gujarat – was appointed the brand ambassador for the campaign. He would prove to be the perfect messenger.

“The best thing that worked in the whale shark initiative was the involvement of Morari Bapu,” Anju Baroth, a scientist with the Wildlife Institute of India, told Mongabay. “If a scientist had gone and given a lecture about conservation, nothing would have gone into their heads. An approach which is close to their heart was required.”

Since whale sharks are a migratory species, Bapu told the community a simple story: The whale shark, which he named Vhali, or ‘dear one’, was like a relative coming home to give birth. The community would not harm such a relative but protect and care for her and her child. In the same way, they must protect and care for the shark, which, despite its size, is a gentle creature that causes no harm. He also appealed to the community’s sense of Dharma. Killing the shark was a sin, he told them, while saving it would bring them good karma. To drive the message home, actors performed a skit based on this theme.

Though it took a few years to convince all the fishermen to get on board, today, “there is a total ban [on whale shark hunting]. The mind-set has changed,” Gohel said.

A 2016 community event in Porbandar that shows the life-size inflatable whale shark. Image by Maheshbhai (Porbandar).

The project reinforces Bapu’s message every year with two community events. Since 2015, the project has celebrated international Whale Shark Day on August 30th. In addition, a culturally significant day in the Gujarati calendar has been designated Gujarat Whale Shark Day by the Forest Department. “On that particular day, the fishers will not go out to sea. It is an important day to spend with their families,” Husenkha said.

Follow the leader

The project’s other important activity in building community support was getting the community heads, known as Patels, on its side. Such is their tradition that the writ of these heads is the law in their communities. Tulsibhai Gohel is the Patel in Veraval and heads an association that counts 2,100 fishing boat owners as members. Those who do not follow their Patel’s instructions are blackballed.

“Once the community leader has decided not to hunt, if someone offers even $10,000 for a shark, we won’t kill it,” said Patel Jivabhai Bariya, former head of the Sutrapada Koli Fisherman’s Association. Jivabhai has personally helped rescue around 50 whale sharks. There is a sense of pride that has come with being part of the project too. “The world knows that we have been protecting the whale shark and we are proud to be part of the project,” Jivabhai said.

The project has also built community support through collaboration with village leaders, known as Patels, whose decisions traditionally serve as informal law in their communities. Three Patels spoke with Mongabay about their work with the Whale Shark Conservation Project: Patel Jivabhai Bariya (left), Patel in Sutrapada, Ratilal Haridas (center), Patel in Dhamlej Tulsibhai Gohel (right), Patel in Veraval . Image by Tariq Engineer for Mongabay.

Monetary compensation

In late 2005, the Gujarat Forest Department agreed to compensate the fishermen for the nets that were ruined when they cut the shark free. “When the hunting stopped, the whale shark population increased and more were getting stuck in the nets,” Ratilal Hardas Bariya, Patel from Dhamlej, said. “It was causing the fishermen a lot of trouble.”

The department has paid out around $130,000 in compensation up to 2018, the latest year for which data are available. In 2010, the department also agreed to let fishermen document the rescues themselves using plastic film cameras provided by the project. This significantly cut down on the time taken to rescue the shark, and thereby reduced the stress on the fish. This year, the project has launched the Vhali app, so the fishermen can take photos or video on their smart phones.

“The institutionalisation of the process for providing monetary relief to fishermen for net damages incurred during whale shark rescue operations has also contributed to the project success,” Tata’s Talwar said.

A holistic model

In 2005, Tata Chemicals was awarded the Green Governance Award for the project, and in 2014, the Gujarat Forest Department received a Biodiversity award from the UNDP and the Ministry of Environment. The Project has just started a similar project in Kerala in India’s far south.

The Whale Shark Conservation Project has been successful because each partner brought something different to the table. “All these blocks were put together and the puzzle was solved,” Baroth said. “Companies have the money and traditionally the research community is always in the need of money.”

For Talwar, it also provides evidence that companies can play a big role in conservation, with or without the CSR act. “The need is for environmental organizations, which have knowledge about ecosystem and biodiversity, to raise the issues and rope in different companies depending upon their areas of influence.”


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