Riding with the whale sharks in India

New Delhi, July 17 (Calcutta Tube) The giant whale shark – a gentle specie of the deep sea about which very little is known – will soon be a tourist attraction off the Gujarat coastline even as it is tagged for genetic analysis and conservation.

Tourism officials are hoping to start the ‘whale shark tours’ soon along the Gujarat coast in the Arabian sea soon, once the infrastructure is available.

Gujarat’s ministry of environment and forests and NGO Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) are also taking training from Australian experts to launch the two projects simultaneously under the Whale Shark Conservation Project.

‘In India, a large number of whale sharks have been seen off the Gujarat coastline. However, there is little information whether these are resident or migratory. If tags are enabled on these sharks, it will help track them and understand their migratory patterns and habitats,’ Dhiresh Joshi, coordinator of WTI, told IANS.

India’s ministry of environment and forests has given the green signal for tagging the species for genetic analysis.

The whale shark is a highly migratory specie. There is no knowledge whether there is breeding among different groups within the specie.

The whale shark, one of the biggest species among sharks that weighs a massive 34 tonnes and feeds on microscopic three-millimetre-long plankton, is listed under Indian wildlife laws.

Once tagged, marine conservationists will be able to track their movement. Genetic sampling may also throw light on how closely different populations of the whale shark are related.

Marine experts from Australia’s Scientific Advisory Council visited Porbandar to help prepare a work plan for the project.

‘We are in the process of procuring satellite tags and will soon be initiating genetic analysis of individual whale sharks. This is a completely new exercise for the species in India.

‘Hopefully, in a few years, through extensive studies, we will be able to shed more light on this gentle giant of the deep seas,’ Joshi said.

The campaign will also help convert fishermen into protectors of the whale shark, benefiting the coastal communities of the state, he said.

Pradeep Khanna, Gujarat’s principal chief conservator of forests, said one would have to take care that tourism does not impact the whale sharks’ habitat.

Hunted for their liver oil, a global campaign is on for whale shark conservation through scientific methods and community awareness.

The specie was first noticed in 1828 in Cape Town, South Africa. Australia has been doing a lot of research on whale sharks, including tracking the ones coming to its shores through satellite tagging.

Through the satellite tagging process, animals can be tracked through satellites by using Very High Frequency (VHF) radio waves. It involves identifying individual whale sharks, just like stripe patterns are used to identify individual tigers.

Australia has also started professionally-run whale shark tours.

An Indian delegation, on a visit to Australia to observe whale shark satellite tagging, was taken out on a swim with whale sharks to allow a first-hand experience of whale shark tourism in that country.

The visit was an official learning tour for the Whale Shark Conservation Project, under the Gujarat forest department and WTI.

(Prantick Majumder can be contacted at prantick.m@ians.in)

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