INDIA UPDATE: Whale sharks—from hunted quarry to conservation icon

Once hunted extensively off the state of Gujarat, the whale shark came to be known as ‘Vhali’ –meaning loved one—and spectacular events provided public participation and groundswell.Thirteen years since a religious icon in India championed the cause of saving a little-known fish, the tide has turned for the whale shark – the world’s biggest fish once hunted off the coast of the western Indian state of Gujarat.

After intensive lobbying helped provide the highest protection to the whale shark in India, IFAW’s partner in south Asia, Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) launched a campaign with its corporate supporter Tata Chemicals Ltd. targeted at the fishing community to build awareness on its legal status.

Religious leader Shri Morari Bapu stepped in with a cultural angle that equated the whale shark to a daughter visiting her parents’ home to give birth to her offspring. “Killing the fish is akin to killing a manifestation of the divine deity,” he said. The religious and cultural angle along with street plays in the local language and a life-sized inflatable that accompanied the campaign drove home the message that led to fisher folk cutting their own nets to set free accidentally entangled whale sharks. The fish came to be known as ‘Vhali’ –meaning loved one—and spectacular events provided public participation and groundswell.

Campaign delight kicked in with rescues that started in 2005. It continued until we realized the loss of livelihood to fishers due to damaged fishing nets.  A ‘compensation scheme’ was then initiated with the government and to make it further fool-proof, we equipped 1,500 fishing boats with cameras to enable them to document such rescues on their own and claim relief after providing photographic evidence of a rescue.

More than 600 whale sharks have been rescued under this self documentation scheme from the time this scheme was launched in 2012!

The community now celebrates the whale shark with its own special day each year. They are actively collaborating with the project team to report sightings to enable satellite tagging. Six whale sharks have been tagged so far and five neonates have been recorded, thus confirming Morari Bapu’s homily that the waters off the coast of Gujarat are indeed birthing grounds for the world’s biggest fish.

-RG

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