Ahmedabad : As colorful crowds converged onto the University grounds in Ahmedabad, they gasped in awe and wonder at a gigantic fish that stared down at them from a pedestal. Vhali, the life-sized model of the whale shark, all of forty feet, became the centre of attraction to the people of land-locked Ahmedabad, who had never imagined a fish of this magnitude before.
Vibrant Gujarat , the nine-day event organized by the State Government coincided with Navratri, the festival of dance in Gujarat . The main theme of the event is Tourism, with a highlight on Adventure and Eco Tourism. It was inaugurated by the President Dr APJ Abdul Kalam on the evening of the 14 th.
The state of Gujarat has the longest coastline in India . Whale sharks have been sighted frequently off the 1600km long coast of Gujarat . The whale shark, which is the biggest fish in the world with its average size from 40 to 50 ft was till recently commercially harvested for its oil that was used to waterproof boats, and for its meat and fins that were exported.
The Government has banned fishing and trade of the whale shark in May 2001 by placing the endangered fish in Schedule-I of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, thereby granting it highest legal protection.
The campaign to spread awareness about the whale shark is being spearheaded by the Wildlife Trust of India and its partner, the International Fund for Animal Welfare and is being supported by two major corporate houses with units in the state: the Gujarat Heavy Chemicals Limited and Tata Chemicals Limited.
The 40 ft model of the whale shark, christened Vhali, which was first displayed in the town of Mithapur proved to be an instant crowd puller. Its sheer size generated enormous excitement and awe in a community which had never seen a model of this magnitude before. Children and parents alike were drawn to the inflatable, trying to touch and feel it. The inflatable is designed to be the backdrop for a series of street plays on the whale shark, which are a part of the campaign to give the people of Gujarat a feeling of pride for this fish.
“Vhali the whale shark was taken through towns and small fishing villages along the coast with the street play enacted to build awareness among the fishing community,” said Dhiresh Joshi, the campaign manager.
“The message has gone down very well, which is apparent in the fact that recently a 40 ft whale shark that was caught in the fishing nets of a trawler was released by the fishermen, by cutting the nets”, added Joshi.
“Awareness through the campaign has succeeded in bringing about acceptance of the fish as the pride of Gujarat . In sharp contrast is the incident in Chennai that happened on the 15th, when a whale shark was dragged by fishermen to the shore and left to die, just because the people were ignorant of its protected status,” added Joshi.
Earlier this year, the popular religious leader Morari Bapu agreed to be the ambassador for this campaign and formally launched the campaign in Gujarat . In his address at the launch, Morari Bapu likened the whale shark visiting the shores of Gujarat to a daughter visiting her parents and said that it was indeed sad that fishermen hunted this gentle giant instead of protecting it and creating an environment conducive for it to breed.
In the course of the campaign that moved along the coast of Gujarat from Okha to Diu , two cities, Porbandar and Diu have adopted the whale shark as the city mascot.
The little exposure that the campaign had inland was restricted to occasional write-ups in the regional media and the model Vhali exhibited to children in Ahmedabad on World Environment Day in May this year.
An event like Vibrant Gujarat attracts thousands of visitors on a daily basis and prolonged exposure for nine days will build awareness about the fish in the city elite and policy and decision makers who visit the exhibition grounds.
After the inauguration of the event, the leader of the opposition party, LK Advani took a closer look at the whale shark model and showed interest in the campaign. The Chief Minister of Gujarat , Narendra Modi was briefed on the activities of WTI and the whale shark campaign when he visited the exhibition on the 17 th. Among other dignitaries who showed interest in the campaign were the finance minister Vajubhai Vala and the forest minister Mangubhai Patel.
“As for the general public, the people were really awed by the sheer size of the fish and one could hear many a Wow! now and then. There were many inquiries on the real size of the fish.
Children would tug at their parents’ hands and pull them to the whale shark model,” reported Joshi.
“This was one photo op that people did not miss”, added Joshi. “Five year old Reha Lodhiya seemed terrified of the model when her mother tried to make her touch it. I could befriend her by giving her a whale shark flag and took her to the model where she touched it with apprehension at first then slowly the fear turned to familiarity and then friendship, finally when she started tapping it like a long lost friend. I could see that Vhali, the whale shark had made a new friend today and Reha waved goodbye to Vhali when she left” Joshi enthused.
At the end of the day Vhali the whale shark made a lasting impression on people’s minds in Ahmedabad. The campaign continues with its efforts on giving Vhali the whale shark a place of pride in Gujarat , equal to the Asiatic lion