Shark Tales – In Conversation With Mike Pandey
Photo Courtesy: Mike Pandey.
One of India’s best-known wildlife filmmakers, Mike Pandey, has time and again proved that visual media is a powerful conservation tool. His documentary film on the massacre of whale sharks off the Gujarat coast, Shores of Silence, shot over a period of three years, is widely considered to be one of the world’s most powerful wildlife documentaries. The film went on to win multiple national and international awards, including the Green Oscar in 2000, and led to the species being given protection under Schedule I of India’s Wildlife Protection Act, 1972.
In a brief conversation with Cara Tejpal, he talks about sharks, implementing legislations, and the state of our oceans.
Tell us a little bit about Shores of Silence. How did you learn about the slaughter of whale sharks and why did this issue, more than any other, inspire you to make a film?
I was just nine years old when I first saw whale sharks. My brother, sister and I were traveling from Kenya to India. A group of seven whale sharks followed our ship through the eight-day journey. We lost sight of them just the day before we dropped anchor at Porbandar.
It was during the making of a film on ocean resources near Porbandar that my brother and I accidently stumbled upon a whale shark being hacked and dismembered on the Gujarat coast. This was our second encounter with the largest fish in the world. All our protests that it was an endangered creature, the largest fish in the world, fell on deaf ears. The magnificent fish in front of us lay on the beach still alive as the fishermen hacked into it. Most of it was already dismembered, but a glimmer of life still lingered in its huge amber eyes. I remember looking at it helplessly as life ebbed away from its tattered body. Its huge gentle eyes seemed to be pleading for life and I felt a strange bond with the fish. I found myself whispering, promising to do whatever we could to fight against this mindless slaughter.
The fishermen called it ‘kachra fish’ meaning ‘garbage fish’ since no one consumed the meat; only the liver was cut out and taken home to process into oil. The rest of the carcass was dumped into the ocean.
Years later, working on another film for Discovery on Gir Lions, my mind kept drifting to the fading light of that whale shark’s eyes and the Gujarat coast that was just 40 km. away. I had a silent promise to keep, to raise my voice against the mindless killing of these gentle giants of the oceans. No one believed that whale sharks existed in such large numbers in the Arabian Sea or Indian waters. We mounted a shoot and started filming in Viraval and surrounding areas.
Tragically, while we were shooting, we noticed an escalation in the numbers of whale sharks being hunted. A trader had arrived with market demand for whale shark meat for export to some South Asian countries. This led to a massive increase in the number of whale sharks being slaughtered in Indian waters. There was no ban in place, so it was a free for all. Almost 1,200 whale sharks were being slaughtered in one season. Every bit exported. The huge fins were being exported for shark fin soup, and the meat to cater to the palates of eager customers in Asian countries.
It was important to bring the issue out into the open and appeal to the public and policy makers. Proof of the presence of whale sharks in our waters and the mindless slaughter was the evidence we needed to document, and quickly. It was a difficult film to put together and took almost two and a half years to finish. The rest is history.
Photo: Ketki Jog and Mihir Sule.
A ban on the fishing of whale sharks and protection under the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972. Did you expect that the film would have such massive impact and lead to legislative change?
The first show of the film shocked all those who saw it. The Inspector General of Forests India, Chief Conservators, policy makers, WWF officials and distinguished guests, all were aghast at the shocking slaughter that was taking place in Gujarat. The film triggered off a global campaign against the brutal massacre of the largest fish in the world.
The legislative changes especially – global protection by CITES in Santiago, Chile, and the first ever protection of a marine species in India under the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, was a landmark and beyond our wildest dreams. All in just three months!
Legislation takes years and sometimes decades to come into force. Global legislation takes many countries working together for years to succeed. But the power of strong visuals made it possible. The impact was massive and the National Geographic channel screened the film all over the world, over a period of two years. It was declared the most powerful conservation film in the world that led to the protection of a species. Had the slaughter carried on, the whale shark would have become extinct by now. It received multiple awards and recognitions across the globe including a UN award for outstanding achievement for protection of a global heritage.
What is the status of whale sharks in Indian waters today? Has policy implementation been effective?
The whale sharks swim freely. The policy implementation has proven to be effective. Whale sharks are no longer hunted in Gujarat waters. Sometimes if a small whale shark does get snagged or trapped in their nets, fishermen usually cut away the net to free the whale sharks. Compensation is paid to the fishermen to cover the losses of their nets.
Photo: Digant Desai.
India is recognised as the second-largest shark fishing nation in the world. A huge reason is suspected to be the export of shark fins to Southeast Asia. Your take on how this is affecting shark populations?
Shark populations in our waters are dwindling and many species are on the verge of extinction. The massive plunder has emptied many fishing areas of these predators and master scavengers of our oceans. This will impact the ocean ecosystem badly. Shark species are under severe pressure all over the world. In India, even juveniles are fished to feed the lucrative finning industry. This has directly impacted the shark species and numbers in our waters.
Do you feel that a ban on shark fin exports (but not on fishing, so as to safeguard the interests of artisanal fishermen) is a necessary step if we want to conserve sharks?
The ban will be a welcome first step, but enforcement will remain a major issue. Livelihood issues need to be taken into consideration as well and that will be another crucial issue. Shark stocks are at a dismal low. Sharks are slow breeders and need time to replenish. Banning shark fin exports alone will not be effective; more needs to be done if the 60 odd dwindling species are to be given a fighting chance.
Apart from addressing policy-makers, there is an urgent need to generate awareness amongst the giants of the fishing industry, corporates, countries and even the artisanal fisherman, to the limitation of the oceans, the loss of diversity and the need for sustainable practices. Over 80 per cent of exploited fish species are facing extinction.
Apart from the sharks, other sea resources are being over fished to extinction and at a ravenous pace. At this rate our oceans will be empty by 2047, impacting the livelihood of billions of people and oceans will turn into silent and lifeless reservoirs of saline water.
Learn more about Sanctuary’s campaign to ban the export of shark fins from India, here.
Update: On 6 February, 2015, India's Ministry of Commerce and Industry issued a notification prohibiting the export of shark fins of all species of sharks!