WWF compiles stories of shark gods
WWF-Pacific is taking an innovative approach to raising awareness about the need to protect sharks and rays in the region by compiling stories of shark gods featured in Pacific myth and legend.
WWF Pacific is taking an innovative approach to raising awareness about the need to protect sharks and rays in the region by compiling stories of shark gods featured in Pacific myth and legend.
It comes as the conservation group launches a programme to support Pacific governments manage and conserve their shark and ray populations.
The manager of WWF's global shark programme, Ian Campbell, spoke to Amelia Langford about its efforts and started by giving some examples the book, Shark Gods of the Pacific.
Almost a quarter of all sharks and rays are threatened with extinction, with overfishing and habitat loss being the biggest threats.
IAN CAMPBELL: There are stories that tell you about how sharks got their shape, there are stories about love and war, there are even stories about marriage advice. Everyone knows the Hammerhead shark, everyone is aware of the shark, but even scientists are in dispute as to why the shark has a distinctive-shaped head. But you have to go to the Cook Islands for an answer where Ina? the fairy princess wanted to meet her betrothed - the demi-god of the ocean, and the friendly shark offered to give her a lift across the waters to see him. Obviously she didn't want to get too thirsty - she took plenty of coconuts with her - didn't have a way of opening the coconuts and used the shark's head, which flattened it into a hammerhead shape. So there are some great stories passed down from generation to generation. Also, did you know in Palau, we told the President this and he didn't realise this, but in Palau if i fisherman is out in his fishing boat and a shark swims upside down and bites the canoe then his wife is cheating on him. So there are lots of beautiful, interesting stories that people seem to forget so we are trying to reinforce that and put that positive message back into sharks.
AMELIA LANGFORD: That's an interesting one, isn't it. I am just trying to imagine a shark swimming upside down. They can do that can they?
IC: [Laughs]. Yes, sharks can do lots of amazing things.
AL: Yeah. And obviously across Pacific cultures sharks have almost been revered.
IC: They have. If you go to any of these small island nations, atolls, they don't have the big game that you see in Africa and Europe and sharks really are along with turtles and whales and dolphins really are intrinsically linked to cultures ever since man lived in these islands. So they are just weaved throughout time. The book is being complied, we thought it would be a very simple task and it would take a couple of months for us to collect some stories and fables, but the more we delved into the different countries, the more stories came forward. So we're still producing that book but that should be imminent. And then that will be taken to the governments to show that we understand what sharks mean to different cultures. In parallel to that, we will be working closely with some academic institutions and the sharks specialist group of the International Union of Conservation of Nature to try and develop some ways of assessing shark populations. The IUCN produced a report earlier in the year that stated that 25 percent of sharks and rays are threatened with a real risk of extinction. One of the biggest problems is almost half the 1,000 plus species they looked at, there's no data at all. They don't know whether the populations are large, small, whether they're declining, whether they are stable. So we're working with shark researchers and some citizen science organisations to try and accumulate some data, some knowledge, to try to plug those data gaps. The shark book really does sort of put sharks back into the culture and heritage. Just reinforcing that message that sharks are important not just ecologically, but culturally. Then when it comes to managing these populations, we will be helping governments to do that.
AL: I would guess one of the challenges for this programme to succeed would be overcoming people's misunderstanding and fear about sharks, would I be correct in saying this?
IC: You would indeed, yes. Sharks are very easily led into sensationalist headlines. I mean every time that somebody spots a shark in the water it's a killer shark, near attack with a person. There was a recent video where a hammerhead shark was filmed going after a sting ray and happened to be two people standing in ankle-deep water near it. Of course, all the headlines were "people just avoided killer shark attack." So the media, sometimes sensationalist headlines sell. So, yes, we're trying to work with diving operators so ecotourism is a huge thing in the region. Palau declared its waters a shark sanctuary and they've seen a massive increase in ecotourists wanting to come and swim with sharks. So there's a slow tide turning that way, but it is definitely a difficult issue. Again that links into why we wanted to link it with culture, turn that message from the negative to the positive. And there are increasing numbers of tourists who want to see these things in their natural habitats.
AL: And are you passionate about the survival of sharks?
IC: Absolutely, it's what got me into this place in the first place. It was sharks, when I was a kid back home I lived near the sea in the UK and I would see sharks being landed by fisherman, I watched the old Jacques Cousteau programmes and that's really what fueled my desire and I now find myself working to try and help some of these creatures and I'm very happy about it indeed.
AL: There will be people out there who have seen Jaws or have been traumatised by seeing that as a child, and they might say to you, why should we save these creatures. What would you say to them?
IC: Well, everything needs a place in ecosystems. If you take away the top predators, a lot of sharks are the top of the food chain, you start taking that out, and the food chain starts collapsing. And once the food chain starts collapsing, your fisheries start collapsing and your reef systems start collapsing and so these things are absolutely key to be part of. And of course there are over 500 species of sharks and everyone knows the Great White Shark and some of these big ones, but there is a vast array of sharks that we know absolutely nothing about. They exist in virtually every ocean across the globe. They range from the size of your finger up to the huge whale shark, the biggest fish in the sea. And personally from my point of view, Jaws was something that sparked my love of sharks, so hopefully it swings both ways (laughs).
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