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Saving the gentle giants

The whale sharks (rhincodon typus), belonging to the shark family, but undoubtedly the gentlest and indeed the largest fish in the world, comes swimming all the way from the seas off the shores of Australia to the coast of Saurashtra, Gujarat, between September and May, to spawn in these waters.

For years, its size — it can grow to over 50 feet in length and weigh more than 10 tonnes — and mellow temperament made it an easy prey to fishermen who profited from them. About as many as 1,200 whale sharks had been killed by fishermen annually before 2001, when the Indian government banned the fishing and trading of this fish that can have a lifespan of 150 years. Not only was the whole fishing operation cruel — the fish being hooked with barrels tied to ropes to keep them afloat — but by not allowing the fish to breed, the fishing endangered the survival of the species.

The 'Save the whale shark' campaign was launched, partnered by Tata Chemicals, Gujarat Heavy Chemicals, Wildlife Trust of India (WTI), the Coast Guard, the Indian Navy, the Ministry of Environment and Reefwatch, under which, besides providing financial assistance, volunteers created awareness in the fishing community. Street plays, games, posters, inflated shark flotillas, postage stamps and school art competitions became grist for the mill in building awareness.

This is a stirring story about successfully building awareness about the need to protect the whale shark. An initiative that Tata Chemicals has partnered, and in recognition of which, they were awarded the Green Governance award from the Bombay Natural History Society in 2005.

The tide turned when the popular spiritual leader Morari Bapuwas co-opted into the campaign, and he, in his discourses, reminded the community of the age-old Indian tradition of welcoming a 'daughter with child' into her parents' home to give birth.

The analogy melted people's hearts, and since then, the whale shark has not just been welcomed on the shores of Saurashtra, but also fiercely guarded with parentlike protectiveness.

Over 100 whale sharks have been released from fishing nets to date, at great cost to the fishermen, since they have to cut their nets in order to release the gentle giant of the deep.

The locals who once referred to the fish as 'barrel' (being the gear used to hunt the whale shark), now use an endearmen'vhali' or 'dear one'. The municipalities of Porbunder, Diu, Dwarka and Okha have adopted 'Vhali' as their mascot. Kartik, the new moon day, an auspicious day in the Hindu calendar, is celebrated as Vhali Day.

Whale shark watching is another area of interest. WTI expects to place the coast of Gujarat on the map of whale shark enthusiasts. The hope is that the fishermen, tempted by an additional livelihood, will have a vested interest in keeping the fish alive for tourist eyes.

In November 2007, all the stakeholders — WTI, Tata Chemicals, National Institute of Oceanography, Gujarat forest department and the fishing community — involved in the awareness campaign, identified the second phase of the project. As very little is known about the fish, to ensure its survival, a sum of Rs15 million ($320,000 or £190,000)1 has been pledged over a period of five years. The research centre for marine conservation is being established at Mithapur.

A sermon whose message has resonated on the deep seas has helped save these leviathans, and the marine research will now help preserve a flourishing marine ecosystem, of which they are an integral part.

Exchange conversion as on November 19, 2009

Sourced from ‘Tata Planet & People Initiatives’ Published by Group Corporate Affairs Copyright Tata Sons Limited, 2009.