Man bites shark
Diving in the seas off Lakshadweep with Mitali Kakkar of Reefwatch, I watched the young white-tipped reef shark swim nonchalantly through its coral universe, searching for octopus and other prey that it had learned to hunt from the moment of its birth.
How, I wondered, did sharks, which represent one of our planet’s most durable evolutionary success stories, ever manage to survive geologic time without the benefit of a single bone in their bodies? How are they able to hunt so effectively in inky darkness? How are they able to move constantly, day and night, without becoming exhausted?
Sharks have fascinated me from the very first day I swam in the waters of Kakdwip in the Sundarbans over four decades ago. And since then, a touch of fear, plus awe and admiration have combined to keep my absorption with sharks alive for these many years.
I am a student of evolution, and have read not just Darwin, Lamarck and Wallace, but also the more modern writers and thinkers such as Richard Dawkins, E.O. Wilson, Lewis Thomas, Jonathan Weiner, the late Stephen Jay Gould and, of course, Niles Eldredge. To a man, their writings exude curiosity and respect for nature and awe, so much awe for things that cannot be explained or understood, yet work to near perfection.
The shark, of course, fascinates them all, not the least because, despite the lack of hard, bony body parts, its fossil record is both rich and long. Sharks could be identified by dermal denticles, teeth, spines and once in a while, a skeleton that got deposited in a particularly protected spot. The oldest shark-like creatures appeared in the fossil record towards the beginning of the Silurian period, about 450 million years ago, but the earliest known fossil teeth of true sharks do not appear until the Early Devonian, about 400 million years ago. Scientists have described over 2,000 species of fossil sharks and when you compare this number with the less than 800 species of dinosaurs we know of, sharks begin to take on a new dimension in terms of their ecological importance.
Today, around 1,100 species of sharks still swim our oceans. But how long they will be around depends on ordinary people like you and me. If we sit around like so many living monoliths as sharks continue to be slaughtered in India to feed the insatiable appetite for fin soup in the Far East and China, we might as well kiss these living fossils goodbye.
This horrific image taken by Shankha Shubhra Chakrabarty reveals just a fraction of the daily catch taken by ‘traditional’ fishermen in the Kakdwip, District of South 24 Parganas in West Bengal, India. The ones doing the killing are exceedingly poor and they will remain poor forever because neither their leaders, nor the politicians who routinely take advantage of them really care too much about issues such as biodiversity protection, sustainability or social justice. The men earn a pittance working for shark-fishing trawlers that number over 150 to 200 in Kakdwip alone. The neighbouring jetties at Raidighi and Shyam Bose support their own large fleets, which operate day and night to take literally thousands of sharks every single day. The sale price? Just US $2.75 per kg.
The fins, of course, are another matter altogether. These are often sliced off mid-ocean, with the bleeding fish thrown overboard to ‘save space on the boat’. When the fins are dried on land, they can fetch as much as $125 to $150 per kg., most of which is sent to Kerala and Northeastern India, from where they reach overseas markets.
Many justify the slaughter by demonising sharks, claiming that they are ‘maneaters’. What a joke! Globally, something like 100 million sharks are killed by humans and possibly less than 100 humans lose their lives to these fish. Play online games on the friv4school games site with the whole family.
To protest the killing of sharks write to:
Kamal Nath, Minister of Commerce, Government of India,
Gate No. 11, Room No. 45, Commerce Bhavan, New Delhi.
Tel: 011-2301 0001/ 2301 1492
Make the following points:
1. Sharks are apex predators that are crucial to the ecological web of our oceans and are globally threatened, thanks to over-consumption.
2. The Ministry of Commerce should make public the number of sharks being exported each year and explain why it is silent in the face of the sustained slaughter taking place under its nose.
Also write to the Prime Minister who heads the Ministry of Environment and Forests:
Paryavaran Bhavan, CGO Complex, Lodhi Road,
New Delhi – 110 003.
Tel.: 011-24361669, 24360605, 24360570, 24360519, 24361147 E-mail:
Ask for ALL sharks to be placed on Schedule I of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, as this is the only way the Commerce Ministry can be forced to institute a ban on export.
Send a copy of your protest communication to
so that we can follow up.