To save the whale shark

NEW DELHI, AUG.1. The Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) has launched a project along the Gujarat coast to save the whale shark that has been coming there for more than a century now. The fish, with a unique pattern of light spots and stripes on its grey body, weighs between two tonnes and eight tonnes.

Its numbers have shown a steady decline owing to illegal hunting. To make matters worse, the reproduction rate is low. It reaches sexual maturity by 30 years and delivers only small numbers of the young. The disappearance of the whale shark could affect the ecological balance and the marine eco-chain.

India banned fishing and trade of the whale shark in May 2001 by listing it in Schedule-1 of the Wildlife (Protection) Act. The WTI has been campaigning to create an awareness in Gujarat, particularly among fisher folk, by promoting the whale shark as the `Pride of Gujarat'. It is being supported in this effort by Tata Chemicals and Gujarat Heavy Chemicals Ltd.

The WTI intends to reach out to get children's support for the cause and study the viability of whale shark tourism. It is also looking for the support of policy-makers and decision makers to protect the fish. One step that has been mooted is to declare the whale shark the state animal. Porbandar municipality has adopted the whale shark as its mascot.

Whale sharks undertake long migrations. They breed in the Indian Ocean and drift south in the Mozambique Current, going around the Cape of Good Hope into the Atlantic.

Then they may be carried across the Atlantic towards the Caribbean. It comes to the Gujarat coast annually as part of its migration routine.

In India, there has been a lack of awareness about the importance of this rare and elusive creature.

According to WTI activists, until recently it was illegally hunted off the coast of Veraval and Okha for commercial trading. March and June constituted the peak season.

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