A few weeks ago, the crew of an Indian fishing boat in the Arabian Sea thought they had the biggest catch of their lives.
DWARKA, India A few weeks ago, the crew of an Indian fishing boat in the Arabian Sea thought they had the biggest catch of their lives.
A 40-foot-long unsuspecting whale shark had entered their nets on a still night.
But instead of killing the creature, known as the gentle ocean giant, the captain called the boat owner who promptly told him to let it go.
"I may have lost a lot of money. But I'm happy that I could play a role in saving the protected fish," Kamlesh Chamadia, the boat owner said.
Two years ago, Chamadia, like hundreds of other fishermen along the Saurashtra coast of India's western Gujarat state, would have had little hesitation in killing whale sharks.
But a lively campaign by a wildlife group and a popular religious leader has helped reduce the killing of the world's largest fish (Rhincodon typus) which migrate to the Indian coast to breed from faraway Africa.
Despite a government ban in 2001, Indian fishermen slaughter at least 1,000 whale sharks every year and make a fortune by exporting the fins, meat and oil to Southeast Asia, wildlife activists say.
"We have been relentlessly campaigning in the Saurashtra coast to protect the whale sharks. Fishermen would have certainly continued to kill them had we not launched the campaign," said Dhiresh Joshi, Wildlife Trust of India's campaign manager.
The group has hoisting life-size inflatables of the whale shark along the Gujarat coast, holding poster exhibitions on the fish and putting up banners and posters urging the protection.
There have been no reports of whale shark hunting in the past year since the start of the campaign, also backed by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) and two local business firms, activists say.
The shark, mostly found in tropical temperate waters, feed on plankton and are protected by several countries including the United States, Philippines, Mexico, Australia and Maldives.
The whale shark protection campaign in Gujarat has also got a religious flavor to it after Murari Bapu, a popular Hindu preacher, agreed to be its brand ambassador.
Bapu, who holds his audience spellbound with his narration of the stories from the Hindu epic Ramayana, likens the migration of the whale shark to pregnant daughters coming to their parental home for the delivery.
"Would you ever think of any harm to your daughters, let alone killing them. Whale sharks are your daughters and you should take good care of them," Bapu told a gathering of hundreds of fishermen in Dwarka, a coastal pilgrimage city said to be founded by Lord Krishna.
Activists have also staged a street drama depicting a pregnant daughter pleading with her fisherman father not to kill a whale shark trapped in his net.
The play, which has been performed in towns across the Saurashtra coast, strikes an emotional chord with the fishermen and four towns have adopted the shark as their mascot.
"Before I saw the drama, I never knew that the sharks were harmless and were coming to our shore only for breeding," said Kishore Vansh, a fisherman.
The whale shark conservationists now plan to promote the fish as a "Pride of Gujarat" along with the Asiatic Lions -- which have their lone natural habitat in Asia in the Gir forests of state.
They say Gujarat could promote its tourism industry by replicating the success of Australia, which lures tourists to dive and swim with the whale sharks off its Ningaloo reef.
"The tourist potential is immense. Gujarat only needs to effectively sell the concept and build related infrastructure to facilitate it," Joshi said.