Once brutally hunted along the shores of Gujarat, the worlds largest fish, the whale shark was bestowed the highest level of protection under Schedule I of India’s Wildlife (Protection) Act (1972) in May 2001. Although distributed widely across tropical and warm temperate seas, limited information is available on the population trends of this species, especially along the Indian coastline. Unregulated and unsustainable fishing practices to meet international trade demands for shark fins, liver oil, skin and meat, accidental entanglement in fishing nets, collision with boats as well as extensive coastal pollution have been attributed as major threats to the survival of this species.
In 2004, the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI), Gujarat Forest Department and Tata Chemicals Ltd (TCL). collaborated to raise awareness of the threats to the species and its protection status amongst coastal communities in Gujarat. The ‘Save the Whale Shark Campaign’ was launched as a multi-pronged campaign. One of its strategies involved soliciting the support of popular religious leader Morari Bapu, who equated the fish to the incarnation of a Hindu deity and accorded it the status of a beloved daughter coming home. A life-sized inflatable whale shark model, a street play in the local language, theme-based painting competitions in schools, fetes with the whale shark conservation theme, an educational film and public events all worked together to build local support and turn the awareness campaign into a Pride campaign.
The second strategy involved establishment of the Self Documentation Scheme (SDS). Through SDS, the Gujarat Forest Department provides ex-gratia support for fishers who cut their nets to release accidentally entangled whale sharks. Allowing fishers to self-document such rescues and claim compensation, the scheme has reduced the time taken to rescue whale sharks caught in nets, thereby reducing the stress on the fish and increasing their chances of survival in the wild (post-release).
The Whale Shark Conservation project is now in its third phase, with support from the fishing communities of Veraval, Sutrapada and Dhamlej region.
- More than 672 whale sharks, caught incidentally in the fishing nets of local fishermen, have been rescued and released.
- The Gujarat Forest Department has institutionalised the process of providing monetary relief to fishermen towards fishing net damages incurred during the whale shark rescue operation. They dispensed more than USD 10,500 to fishers who voluntarily released accidentally entangled whale sharks between 2005 and 2015.
- Annual celebrations for Whale Shark Day have been institutionalised by the Gujarat forest department.
- Research work on whale shark biology including its feeding, breeding and migratory patterns is continuing, and contributing towards establishing a scientific-basis for conservation and protection of this enigmatic and endangered species.
In recognition of the collaborative conservation successes of the project TCL received the Green Governance Award in 2005; the Gujarat Forest Department received the UNDP-MoEF Indian Biodiversity Award in 2014; WTI and TCL received international acclaim at the Whale Shark Conservation Conference at Doha, Qatar, in 2016, where experts noted that the approach deployed by WTI and TCL is an exemplar for other developing nations, in areas where there is a strong sense of community.