Saving our speckled giants

Location: West coast of India. 16th Sep 2013

The largest fish in the world, whale sharks, have faced population declines globally. In Gujarat, India, they were once killed in large numbers, fetching up to USD 2,250 for fishermen. This was curbed in May 2001 when the species was afforded the highest level of protection under Schedule I of the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972

In 2001, the Whale Shark Campaign was jointly launched in Gujarat by the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI), International Fund for Animal Welfare, Tata Chemicals Limited and Gujarat Forest Department, to spread awareness, educate and change perceptions of the fish. Morari Bapu, famous for his spiritual lectures, ingeniously equated the whale shark to a daughter of Gujarat. He called it 'Vhali' or 'dear one' and likened it to a pregnant daughter who returns to her parents' home to give birth to her child; a custom practiced in many parts of India, particularly Gujarat. This drew a huge emotional response from the local people, in favor of the fish’s protection.

In November 2011, MFF India and WTI embarked on a small grant project to assess the past and present distribution of whale sharks (Rhincodon typus) along the rest of the west coast of India. With the objective of establishing the distribution and threat status of the whale shark, fishermen surveys were conducted in Maharashtra, Karnataka, Goa, Kerala and the Lakshadweep Islands; similar surveys were previously conducted by WTI in Gujarat. 1,703 fishermen (between the ages of 25 and 90 years) in 118 fishing villages were interviewed. It was determined that:

  • 61% of the fishermen surveyed have sighted whale sharks in the Arabian Sea during their fishing activities (approximately 20 to 100 km from the shoreline). The highest numbers of sightings were in the Lakshadweep Islands, followed by the coastal waters of Maharashtra, Karnataka, Kerala and Goa respectively. There is speculation that the whale shark migrates along the west coast.
  • Four major whale shark aggregation sites have been identified: the Malvan coast (off Maharashtra coast), Netrani Island (Uttar Kannada), Karwar (Karnataka) and Minicoy (Lakshadweep Islands). These sites should be prioritized for protection as they appear to serve as nesting and feeding grounds for whale sharks.
  • Accidental catch in nets has been identified as the primary threat to whale sharks along the west coast of India. However, the survey results did highlight the severe lack of awareness amongst the fishermen regarding the protection status of whale sharks in India, as a significant impediment to existing conservation efforts.

The project has culminated in the development of draft state level recovery plans for whale sharks along the west coast of India. These plans will be discussed with State Chief Wildlife Wardens and forest department officials over the coming months

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Whale Sharks, the largest known fish. © Venkatesh Charloo, 2012

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