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Schoolchildren, Fishing Communities Headline WTI’s Gujarat Whale Shark Day Celebrations
Sutrapada, Gujarat, December 5, 2016: The coastal communities of Gujarat observed ‘Vhali Utsav’ or ‘Whale Shark Day’ on November 29, the auspicious Kartik Amavasya, as has been the norm since 2007 when the Gujarat government had designated it as a day to celebrate this gentle giant of the seas.

Stage artists from Doordarshan Ahmedabad performing a play, ‘Vahli-re-Vahli, Whale Shark Hamari’ on Gujarat Whale Shark Day

Whale shark populations are dwindling globally but there is some cause for celebration along the shoreline of Gujarat, where through the combined efforts of the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI), Gujarat Forest Department and Tata Chemicals (TCL) under the Whale Shark Conservation Project – the only such project focused on the welfare of the whale shark in India – fishermen who once hunted the whale shark have, over the last decade, become its proud protectors.

The Gujarat Whale Shark Day event this year was held at the fishing town of Sutrapada and organised by the Gir Somnath Division of the Gujarat Forest Department with WTI and TCL’s support. Over 300 people including school students, members of the fishing community, media and local NGOs were in attendance. Activities such as Beach Cleaning, a Whale Shark Sand Art Competition, a Marine Quiz and a Whale Shark Painting Competition had been organised at Sutrapada and Veraval in the weeks leading up to the event.

The day began with students from four Sutrapada schools carrying banners with the message of whale shark conservation. Teachers and students of all age groups participated in the rally and as it wound its way through the streets of Sutrapada, many members of the local fishing communities followed the procession to the Nava Durga Mata Mandir, where other festivities had been organised.

A Whale Shark Sand Art Competition held earlier in the month of November at Veraval

The DFO of Gir Somnath Mr Gandhi chaired the event and the Executive Magistrate of Sutrapada was the Chief Guest. Mr Satish Trivedi of the Tata Chemicals Society for Rural Development (TCSRD) and Mr Sajan John, Project Manager of the Whale Shark Conservation Project represented TCL and WTI respectively. Dignitaries were presented with mementos by the project team, followed by the ceremonial lighting of the lamp and a beautiful dance performance by students dressed as whale sharks. Stage artists from Doordarshan Ahmedabad then performed a play, ‘Vahli-re-Vahli, Whale Shark Hamari’, with the central theme that the whale shark should be treated like a beloved guest of Gujarat.

Acknowledging the Gujarat Forest Department and TCL for their tremendous support to the project, Mr Sajan John also extended his thanks to the local fishermen for their valuable contribution to whale shark conservation. He informed the crowd that the project’s success in Gujarat had resulted in it being replicated along the east coast of India. “It should be a matter of great pride for all of you that this ‘Gujarat model’ is being implemented in other parts of India,” he said.

Dileepbhai Jinabhai Anjani, vice president of the Gujarat Fishermen Association, Sutrapada, spoke about the need to save marine species, especially whale sharks. His speech was followed by a ceremony wherein compensatory cheques were handed over to fishermen who had cut their nets to free whale sharks in the preceding year. The event concluded with the DFO, Mr Gandhi, underscoring the importance of the conservation of marine species.

Compensatory cheques were handed over to fishermen that had cut their nets to free entangled whale sharks

WTI had launched its Whale Shark Conservation Project in 2004 with a large-scale awareness campaign on the protected status of the whale shark and its plight in the Saurashtra region. The project included a model relief program under which monetary support was offered to fishermen whose nets were damaged or had to be cut open during the rescue and release of whale sharks. Additionally, to speed up the rescue process and reduce stress to entangled whale sharks, a photo documentation process was evolved in 2012 wherein 1200 waterproof cameras were distributed among fishing communities in Sutrapada, Veraval and Dhamlej. The captured images of a rescue by fishermen could now serve as evidence to claim financial relief for damaged nets from the Gujarat Forest Department: as a result, 619 whale sharks have been rescued and voluntarily released by fishermen till date. The project also attempts, through scientific methods such as satellite tagging and genetic analysis, to generate baseline data on the whale shark to aid its long-term conservation in India. 
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