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How Tata Chem is giving sharks a future

October 23, 2007 03:23 IST

They have both 'whale' and 'shark' in their names. However, whale sharks, the largest fish in the world, are not aggressive killers but easy target for hunters in large numbers along the Gujarat coast. Every year almost a thousand sharks were being killed for export.

This was the picture till 2001 when Tata Chemicals joined hands with the Wildlife Trust of India to start a massive campaign against the hunting.

Today, after six years of struggle, the hunting of one of the most gentle creatures in the sea has come down to minimal in India. And Tata Chemicals, having tasted success, is on the verge of starting the second phase of its journey with the sharks.

While Tata Chemicals came with financial and human resource support to the campaign, the Gujarat government doled out incentives and the famous religious leader Morari Bapu voiced his emotional concerns effectively to the masses.

"We tried to bring awareness. The state was unaware of the problems of the animal. If Gujarat is proud of its lions, it should also be proud of its whale sharks," says Aniruddha Mukherjee, chief operating officer of WTI. Gujarat Heavy Chemicals also participated in this campaign.

Whale sharks are very slow swimmers and generally indifferent to humans. They grow up to 45 feet in length and weigh 10-12 tonnes. They used to be slaughtered near the Gujarat coast for their oil and meat to be exported to south east Asian countries.

According to a survey by TRAFFIC India, "Whale sharks were hunted for its liver as early as 1955-1960. Till about 1990, its fins were discarded. Suddenly, in 1991, there was a demand for pectoral, dorsal and caudal fins of the whale shark. Post 1991, most of the whale shark's body parts were being sold — liver, fins, cartilage, skin and meat."

It became the first fish to be included in Schedule I of the Indian Wildlife Protection Act and an aggressive campaign started in Gujarat. Morari Bapu appealed, equating the whale sharks as pregnant daughters who are coming back home to deliver the baby. And questioned, shall we kill them?

Later, the Gujarat government declared compensation for fishermen. If they cut their nets to release whale sharks, they would get a compensation of up to Rs 25,000. A day is dedicated to the species. This has never happened to any other animal in India.

The coastline between Okha and Din has the maximum arrival of whale sharks. Tata Chemicals has not only partially funded the Rs 1.5-crore campaign, but has also set up a team of volunteers from among its employees for the purpose.

"On behalf of our organisation, I hope we soon achieve our common mission of total protection of this wonderful creature, and a flourishing marine eco-tourism that has the whale shark as an integral part if it," Vivek Talwar, head HR, admin and community development, Tata Chemicals, said recently.

The second phase of work to save this gentle giant is about to begin. "Now we need to know whether whale sharks are coming all along the country. We need to know the science involving whale sharks. There is no systematic study on the biology and ecology of these animals," says Mukherjee. This part, too, is expected to be supported by Tata Chemicals.

In places like Australia, South Africa, Mexico and the Philippines, whale sharks form the centre of tourism packages. Tourists come to swim along whale sharks in the sea. This is a big revenue churner for the local tourism. Australia earns around 14 million domestic dollars on whale shark tourism every year.

Maybe in a few years, Gujarat will also witness humans swimming along with sharks. From a relationship of the hunter and the hunted, it will become a relation of friendship.

Saubhadra Chatterji in New Delhi