WHALE SHARKS WERE ONCE BRUTALLY HUNTED along the shores of the Indian state of Gujarat. To stop this slaughter, the species (Rhincodon typus) was added to Schedule I of India’s Wild Life (Protection) Act, 1972 in May 2001, thereby according it the highest level of protection in the country. The Whale Shark also receives international protection due to its inclusion in Appendix II of the Convention in International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (CITES).
WTI launched the widely-acclaimed Whale Shark Campaign in 2004 to spread awareness on the plight of the species and its protected status among coastal communities in Gujarat. The campaign helped convert the fishermen into protectors of the fish and brought about a change in the perception and attitude of local people.
Yet, very little scientific knowledge is available on whale sharks in India. Long-term conservation of the species will require generation of baseline data on its population, ecology and migration.
A member of the project team deploys a satellite tag before releasing a whale shark caught in fishing nets
The Whale Shark Conservation Project attempts to generate baseline data on the whale shark to aid its long-term conservation in India.
A joint venture of the Gujarat Forest Department, Tata Chemicals Limited (TCL) and Wildlife Trust of India (WTI), the project activities involve scientific studies of whale sharks through photo-identification, genetic analysis and satellite tagging. The project also explores establishment of whale shark tourism in India, to benefit coastal communities who play a critical role in marine wildlife conservation.
The project receives significant support from the Australia-India Council (AIC) particularly in exchange of knowledge between the two countries.
Evolving from the Whale Shark Campaign, the project was formally launched in November 2008, beginning with the formation of a Scientific Advisory Council and a Governing Council to facilitate its implementation. While the SAC includes Indian and international marine experts, the GC includes the project implementers and senior Gujarat Forest Department officials.
Currently being implemented by the field personnel of the forest department and WTI, efforts are being made to build capacity of the fishermen to facilitate their direct involvement in whale shark studies.
Shark Rescues and Self Documentation Scheme
Ever since the campaign to save whale sharks was launched, Gujarati fishermen willingly began cutting their nets and releasing whale sharks that had been accidently caught. In a bid to increase the number of rescues and ensure that the fishermen don’t have to bear the costs of their nets each time they cut them, the Gujarat Forest Department decided to reimburse fishermen whose nets were damaged during rescues. Further, through a Rapid Action Project, WTI provided over 1500 cameras to local fishermen, enabling them to document the release of the fish and get compensated by the forest department when they presented the pictures. This has also helped with the identification of individual whale sharks.
This is the first such compensation system for the whale shark in India; nearly Rs 70 lakh has been paid to fishermen and over 600 rescues effected since 2005.
Implemented with the aim to contribute in population estimation as well as study of whale shark migration, photo-identification entails underwater photography and comparison of the photographs in a global database. The photo-identification being carried out under this project contributes whale shark photographs to the database managed by ECOCEAN. Whale sharks are identified using the pattern of spots, which are unique (equivalent to stripes in tigers) in each individual. India began contributing to global whale shark research with the initiation of photo-identification in 2010. The first individual from Indian shores was identified in April. It has been labelled as I-001 and was a new entry to ECOCEAN’s global database.
A recent self documented pup rescue would seem to confirm that whale sharks are breeding in the Gujarat coastal waters
Whale Shark Pups
In 2013, surveys carried out on Gujarat’s coast revealed that four whale shark pups had been sighted in the water, something never reported from India before. This indicated that Gujarat could be a breeding ground for whale sharks. This proposition was further bolstered by the documented rescue in February 2017 of another pup in the waters of the fishing village of Sutrapada.
Whale sharks are found along the coast of India among many other countries across the world. Genetic analysis will help shed light on the genetic diversity of whale sharks as well as help establish the relationship between different populations, which can also contribute to understanding the species’ migratory behaviour.
When the project team tagged a whale shark in 2011 it was the first such tagging in India, a significant step in marine conservation science in the country. Sea surveys have been conducted and further tagging attempts are being made to track the movement of fish from Gujarat’s coast and understand their migratory pattern, habitat preference, and behavioural aspects of the species. The sixth and seventh whale sharks were tagged under the project in December 2016.
An interactive trail map showing the migratory path of a female whale shark tagged in December 2016; the first and longest migratory movement ever recorded from the Indian subcontinent (Use the controls on the map to play/pause or zoom in/out.)
Whale Shark Tourism
The value of the whale shark to local communities is much higher in terms of the revenue generated through tourism as compared to that generated by hunting and killing it. This has been established in Australia, known to be among the countries with best whale shark tourism practices. The project is exploring the possibilities of establishing whale shark tourism in India to incentivise coastal communities to contribute towards the conservation of marine wildlife and habitats.