New Delhi, Feb 14 (IANS) This is one honour that has eluded even India’s fast-dwindling tigers and lions – a day celebrated exclusively in their honour. But the whale shark, the world’s largest fish, is more privileged – in India’s western coastal state of Gujarat.
The state celebrates Whale Shark Day in December – an event in which government officials, the Coast Guard, NGOs, fisher folk and schoolchildren actively participate.
The day is held on Kartik Amas, held auspicious by Hindus. People pledge to protect the fish and take out rallies to sensitise the public about the need to ensure whale sharks have a safe home in Gujarat.
The day is observed as part of a successful campaign that began six years ago.
‘It was a people’s movement – they spoke out and acted for conservation of this fish,’ says Aniruddha Mookerjee of the NGO Wildlife Trust of India (WTI), which started the campaign in partnership with the forest department.
‘This united effort has brought about a change in the fate of this fish in Gujarat. With fisher folk as its protector, the whale shark now has a safe home in the state,’ Mookerjee told IANS.
The campaign is supported by Tata Chemicals and the NGO International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW).
The whale shark was placed under Schedule I of the Wildlife (Protection) Act on May 28, 2001, after Mike Pandey’s award-winning documentary ‘Shores of Silence’ highlighted the plight of this fish in Gujarat.
It was estimated that between 2000 and 2001 alone, some 500 whale sharks were killed off the Gujarat coast. The fish were trapped and killed for meat and their liver oil used for waterproofing boats. The meat was exported to Southeast Asia where it is served as a delicacy.
Whale sharks also die after getting trapped in fishing nets. They remain ensnared for days before they die of hunger and exhaustion.
Since the campaign began in 2004, fishermen have freed about 200 trapped whale sharks from nets – making it one of India’s most successful wildlife conservation movements.
Ahmedabad and the coastal cities of Porbandar, Veraval, Diu, Okha and Dwarka have adopted the fish as their city’s mascot. The state has launched a commemorative postal stamp in its honour.
The whale shark, known as the gentle giant of the ocean, grows up to 40 feet long. The fish feeds on planktons that drift in the ocean and are seen moving slowly along the coast; hence the name gentle giant.
Spiritual leader Morari Bapu, who named the fish Vali, which means dear one in Gujarati, called on his followers to love the fish as their own daughter visiting home.
In February 2007, the state government declared Kartik Amas as Whale Shark Day, recognising the fish as the pride of Gujarat.
Environmentalists say it’s an honour received by no other animal, not even the tiger, in the country.
Fishermen who cut open their nets to free trapped whale sharks get a maximum of Rs. 25,000 each in compensation from the government. But they need to inform the forest department before a rescue mission is initiated, as the official record is needed for any compensation claim.
Forest guard Nanji Bhai says, ‘Since the mobile network range is only up to 30 nautical miles, fishermen can send SMS alerts to the department for whale shark rescue missions only within this radius.’
‘Beyond this range, we don’t know what happens,’ Bhai told IANS on phone.
Currently there are about 1,400 tigers and 350 lions in the wild in India. Both animals are given maximum protection because of their highly endangered status.
(Sanjeeb Baruah can be contacted at email@example.com)