Field biologists Mahesh Babu and Ganesh Pallela of EGREE Foundation were out surveying the Godavari River estuaries in Kakinada, Andhra Pradesh when they spotted an unusual marine animal. It was a shark, not longer than 3 feet, and had distinct black tip on the dorsal, pectoral and tail fins. Could it be the rare Pondicherry shark? Unsure, the biologists sent the details to Anil Mohapatra, scientist from the Zoological Survey of India for confirmation, and were delighted when he came back with a positive response. They had indeed spotted the Critically Endangered Pondicherry Shark – last seen 39 years ago!
Sharks are known as Pala sora in local language and when the field researchers asked the local fishermen about these particular varieties, they agreed that the species was hardly ever seen. However, the fishermen had not idea about the conservation status of the sharks or that it was as protected as the tiger.
Read More: Infographic – What We Are Doing To Sharks
A Lost Species
Pondichery Sharks are considered to be one of the rarest sharks on the planet. They have hardly been seen, and there is little information regarding them. A great deal of what we know about these sharks is based on what was written by two German scientists – Johannes Muller and Jakob Henle in 1839. The museum specimens collected in the 1900s are from the Indo-Pacific region.
However, there have been reports in the past few years of people spotting these sharks in the coastal and river waters of India and Sri Lanka. In 2017 a team from the Wildlife Conservation Society of Galle (WCSG) in Sri Lanka were conducting a freshwater fish survey at the Mekin Ganga when they spotted a shark. They took its measurements and released it back into the water. They later realised that it was the Pondicherry Shark.
These sharks seldom grow more than 3.3 feet and sometimes enter freshwater areas from estuaries like the one on river Godavari. Sri Lanka’s foremost expert on sharks, Rex I. de Silva says,
“In times of drought, when river levels fall seawater may intrude some distance up rivers at high and especially spring tides. Sharks and other marine species may follow the seawater intrusion for a considerable distance up river, so although they are in a river they will still be in salty or semi-saline water.
When the salt water recedes the marine species follow it back to the sea. A shark in freshwater, on the other hand, is usually present farther up a river beyond the reach of salt water.”
Because of lack of data and information, it is not certain whether the Pondicherry sharks are freshwater sharks or the ones that are travelling to the river waters with the sea waters.
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What is surprising is that in Kakinada, the two biologists were able to find two sharks consecutively on two days in the same area.
Divisional Forest Officer (Wildlife) Anant Shankar, also the additional CEO of the EGREE Foundation, told The Hindu that the department in association with the foundation is working with the fishing communities and various line departments in bringing down the trade in such species.
“Conservation of such species is only possible through community mobilisation and stewardship,” he says.
Want to help find this lost species?
Here is an illustration of the Pondicherry Shark (CARCHARHINUS HEMIODON)
Size: Adult: 2.5-3.3 Feet
Habitat range: The Indo-Pacific region from the Gulf of Oman to New Guinea, Malabar, Pondicherry coasts, possibly in Hooghly river
1. Small, stocky, grey-coloured
2. Long, narrow pointed snout
3. Black markings on the pectorals, second dorsal, dorsal, and ventral fins.
If you spot such a shark in your local fish market or while on a trip around these coasts, do contact EGREE Foundation at 0884 236 6017.