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  Yahoo News 18 Feb 07
Religious leader steps in to stop whale shark slaughter in India

The Indian Express 24 Jan 07
Spiritual guru's word saves hundreds of whale shark in Gujarat

Sreenivas Janyala

Morari Bapu's campaign helps enforce law to save the fish; hunted, they fetch almost Rs 1 lakh each

VERAVAL, JANUARY 22: For a fisherman, nothing is perhaps more painful than to let go of a big catch with his own hands, especially if it happens to be a 30-ft whale shark that would fetch at least Rs 80,000.

But that's exactly what fishermen of Saurashtra are doing--often cutting their expensive nets and releasing the whale shark they once butchered by the hundreds as the gentle giants came to breed in the warm waters of the Arabian Sea.

On the face of it, behind this change of heart is a ban on hunting whale sharks. But the fishermen couldn't have cared less for the law if not for one man's word of faith, Morari Bapu's.

One day in 2003, the guru ventured into the sea off Dwarka and blessed a whale shark entangled in a net and said he wished the creature was left alone. The killings stopped almost immediately.

This was two years after the Central government ban on killing whale shark in 2001, and the forest department was struggling to implement it.

Every year, at least 250 whale sharks were killed along the Saurashtra coast. But Morari Bapu, famous for his Ram kathas, knew that in spite of a large following among the fishing communities even his word was not enough.

He decided to combine his preaching with the strict laws for whale shark protection to convince the fishermen against hunting.

"Whale sharks come to Saurashtra coast to give birth and end up getting brutally killed. I reasoned with the fishermen by comparing the whale shark with a daughter who comes home to give birth. Instead of death we should give them respect" the soft-spoken guru told The Indian Express.

The whale shark, protected and classified as a vulnerable species world wide, migrates from as far as the waters of Australia and Mexico to give birth in the warmth of the Arabian Sea along the Saurashtra coast.

They are often found just 1-2 km off the fishing ports of Veraval, Dwarka, Diu, Mangrol and Porbandar.

The rare guests were hunted in the hundreds every year by fishermen who modify their normal fishing boats, arming them with harpoons weighing 8 to 10 kg and ropes tied to half a dozen empty plastic barrels.

"The worst part is they would start cutting it alive. The waters of Veraval and Bhidiya harbour used to turn red," says K Babariya, Veraval range forest officer.

Agents of fish processing and export firms would pay up to Rs 1 lakh for a 40-foot whale shark weighing 8 to 10 tonnes. Its fins, liver from which oil is extracted, and meat has great demand and fetch a heavy price in the international market.

In the coastal fishing towns, it is said that if a fisherman netted two whale sharks in a season he could afford to sit at home the rest of the year.

"As the whale shark fetch such a huge price, I felt there was jealousy among a majority of fishermen. Some were angry too. That is when I felt I should tell them about the strict laws against killing this whale," Morari Bapu said. "Till then I did not know why and under what laws the whale shark was protected. I learnt a little bit, like the maximum jail sentence if one is caught, why the whale shark is an endangered species, and started spreading awareness, he said.

"A couple of corporate houses also approached me and I joined their efforts." Besides the International Fund for Animal Welfare and Wildlife Trust of India, Tata Chemicals and Gujarat Heavy Chemicals have also joined the campaign to save the rare breed.

"Morari Bapu being a respected spiritual leader, his word has provided us a positive inputs in the campaign to save the whale shark," said Pradeep Khanna, chief conservator of forest (wildlife).

The holy man's words have indeed tamed greed.

The powerful Kharwa community, which dint care for the laws, has also fallen in line. "We used to get good money but after the ban and with Morari Bapu appealing, most fishermen have stopped catching that fish," said Narsinh Dholki, president of the Kharwa Association.

The Kharwas worship whales, which are mammals, as an incarnation of Lord Hanuman but since the whale shark is classified as a fish they have been hunting it without religious qualms.

Several fishermen who cut their nets that often costs up to Rs 10,000 to release trapped whale sharks have been felicitated by Morari Bapu on several occasions.

However, it's not all faithful submission. During a bad season, tempers flare in the fishing communities.

"Morari Bapu's preachings are fine but we are becoming poorer by the day," says Laxmansinh Ramsinh, the Veraval Boat Association leader. He says it is just a matter of time before fishermen's patience runs out and they start illegally killing the shark whale again.

But the religious leader has his own plans to up the campaign: he is holding a public meeting in Veraval on February 17 to campaign against the killing of the whale shark.


Yahoo News 18 Feb 07
Religious leader steps in to stop whale shark slaughter in India

NEW DELHI (AFP) - Fishermen in India's western Gujarat state are heeding an appeal issued by a local religious leader to stop killing the whale shark, a report and a wildlife activist said.

The killing continued unabated despite a government ban until Murari Bapu, revered by the fishing community in Gujarat, joined a government campaign to save the whale sharks, the NDTV news channel reported Sunday.

Bapu recently visited the coastal Veravel area and blessed a shark entangled in a fishing net as fishermen prepared to free it, the report said.

"Earlier fishermen used to earn money from selling sharks, but now we are trying to save them," an unidentified fisherman told the news channel.

Thousands of whale sharks arrive off the coast of Gujarat each year and in the past few decades they have been slaughtered for their meat and fins, said Sanjeev Barua, a programme officer with the Wildlife Trust of India.

India began its campaign to protect the whale shark in 2001 when it placed a strict ban on the killing of all sharks, Barua said. But lax enforcement and big money made in illegal trade ensured the slaughtering continued.

"Parts of the fish including its fins are highly prized in the markets of Southeast Asian countries like Thailand for instance, where fin soup is considered a delicacy," Barua said.

Conservative estimates suggest the dried fins of the giant fish can fetch up to five thousand rupees (110 dollars) in the international market.

Barua said the campaign to save the whale sharks had been boosted by Murari Bapu's participation. "We now have five or six fishing towns in Gujarat adopting the whale shark as their mascot. So we feel the message is getting across," Barua said.

Two whale sharks caught by fishermen inadvertently were released last year, Barua said. "The fishermen immediately informed wildlife officials in Gujarat who quickly responded and the fish were freed," he added.

Related articles on Global: marine issues and Southern Islands Development including the Sentosa IR and plans to keep captive whale sharks and dolphins and whale sharks in captivity
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