They are the biggest fish in the world known also as gentle giants because of their calm nature. Whale sharks are sadly one step closer to extinction with International Union of Conservation of Nature (IUCN) re-evaluating their status and putting Whale Sharks in the ‘Endangered’ list from ‘Vulnerable’. With constant decline in the population of this magnificent species, it will take the combined effort of many nations, to stop its extinction.
Numbers of whale sharks (Rhincodon typus), have more than halved over the last 75 years as these slow-moving sharks continue to be fished and killed by ship propellers. Although the efforts of India, Phillippines and Taiwan has helped stop the illegal fishing of the whale sharks in an around the coasts of these countries, fishing of the species in other locations like China and Oman, still threatens their existence. It is this onslaught that has pushed IUCN to reconsider the status of the species and mark it as ‘Endangered’ in the International Red List of Threatened Species that lists and keeps a track of the population of most of the species of the world.
A major cause of decline of whale sharks is when they are fished together with tuna by the tuna fishing boats. What makes their life risky is their need to constantly travel around the tropical warm waters. The moment whale sharks are out of the protected coastal zones of the world, they become a fishing target sometimes as a by-catch and sometimes as the main target for their fins which is later used for shark fin soups.
“It is alarming to see such emblematic species slide towards extinction,” says Jane Smart, Director of IUCN’s Global Species Programme. “These new IUCN Red List assessments emphasise how urgent it is for the conservation community to act strategically to protect our planet’s incredible diversity of life.”
Whale sharks are found in all tropical and warm seas except the Mediterranean. They are one of the 3 filter feeding sharks of the world and despite their humungous size, feed on the smallest of krills and fish in the ocean waters.
Because of their gentle and calm nature, whale sharks are also increasingly becoming ‘tourist attractions’ with people wanting to swim with them. This makes them more valuable alive than dead, although only when such tourism practices are managed well, without harassing the animals.
Whale Sharks In India
In India, conservation of the whale shark is definitely better planned that most other countries. Until recently, whale sharks were more of a mystery to the country with no definite research on their status or whether they were actually present in Indian coastal waters.
However, in the last few years due to the efforts of many NGOs like Wildlife Trust of India and other conservationists and researchers, whale shark study and protection has taken a new turn. For some years now Gujarat has accounted for the highest number of whale shark sighting in India. It is believed that the fish travels seasonally from the south towards the north along the west coast of India and from north towards the south along the eastern coasts regularly.
There also have been whale sharks tracked in Gujarat that seem to be coming from the coasts of Australia and a new study in 2011 revealed that some of the whale sharks could be local and not the migrants coming from Australia. Read more on this story here.
The first whale shark was tagged in India in 2011 by members of the Whale Shark conservation project off the coasts of Gujarat. Read more about this first satellite tagging here.
At present however, it isn’t India alone but global efforts that are needed to save the species.
More About the Whale Shark
Common name – Whale Shark
Scientific name – Rhincodon typus
IUCN Status – Endangered
Whale sharks are the largest fish in the sea. The largest of the species ever measured was 40 feet in length though there are many that have been observed to be even bigger! These gentle giants use the mechanism of filter feeding to eat their favourite food – planktons in their underwater homes. Swimming with their wide mouths open they keep collecting plankton and small fish, close to the water’s surface. Whale sharks live in tropical waters and have a possible migration route, which needs to be studied further.
- Whale sharks belong to the same group which includes sharks, rays and skates called Chondryichtyes.
- While most fishes have a skeleton made of bones, whale sharks have a skeleton made entirely of cartilages.
- The spots around the gill area is different for each individual, helping scientists easily identify each shark.
- Only 3 shark species (the whale shark, the basking shark, and the megamouth shark) are filter feeders, straining their prey from the water column.
- Hot spots for viewing whale sharks are Japan, Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines, Australia, Mexico, the Galapagos, Belize, Honduras, South Africa, Mozambique, Seychelles, India, and the Maldives.
- Their population worldwide is decreasing because of habitat destruction, coastal developments, accidental catches during fishing and slow rate of maturity & reproduction.
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Featured image via cc/Flickr