Religion supports Conservation: The success of Whale Shark Conservation in India

By Tanvi Vaidayanathan

Conservation needs advocates from all arenas.

In a country with 1.31 billion people, where religious beliefs govern the daily activities of a large majority of people, one preacher in Gujarat, Morari Bapu, stands out. Mr. Bapu is celebrated for motivating his congregation in Gujarat to help conserve whale sharks. Thanks to his efforts, locals over the last decade have helped change the fate of these charismatic fish.

During my travels across the Indian coastline for fieldwork, I came across several disheartening stories of conservation efforts failing, as in the case of seahorses and sea-cucumbers, despite the best efforts of activists and governments.  

One story, however, had a positive message that stood out from the rest: the successful conservation of whale sharks along the coast of Gujarat, a state on India’s west coast. The story of Morari Bapu and the whale sharks he protected is not a typical story of conservation. It is one that involves the mixing of people, mythical stories, and at least one Hindu God. 

The large but gentle whale shark. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The large but gentle whale shark. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Whale sharks too, are not typical. They are the largest fish in the sea – often reaching lengths of up to 40 feet. This makes these fish the size of a bus! Whale sharks are believed to come to the Gujarat coast to give birth. However, they were frequently caught in fishing nets and with harpoons, and then slaughtered for oil and fins.  The best estimates suggest that in 1998-1999, over 600 whale sharks were killed. 

In Gujarat, locals did not have a name for whale sharks. Instead fishers nicknamed them ‘barrels’ because fishers used to harpoon large empty barrels on the sharks to prevent them from diving deep to escape being caught.  Alarmed by whale sharks’ declining numbers, 2001 saw the Indian government place the whale shark on Schedule I of the Indian Wild Life Protection Act (WLPA).  This was the first instance of a ban on the catch and export for any marine fish. Their WLPA listing provided even greater protection than they were given in 2003 under the international Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). Despite these listings and whale sharks’ subsequent protection, poaching continued. 

The Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) grew desperate to save these gentle fish. In 2004, they roped in Morari Bapu, a popular Hindu preacher. The fishing communities in Gujarat are dominated Hindus, but there is also a strong Muslim presence amongst the fishers. This meant that Morari Bapu's message had to go beyond only religious sentiments. His first step towards protecting whale sharks involved naming them ‘Vhali’ or loved one. He then told the locals that the whale shark was like a daughter returning home to give birth, and that it was the locals’ responsibility to take care of her. His analogy of the whales being daughters coming home to give birth worked perfectly. It touched all fishermen, regardless of their religion, on a personal level.

Morari Bapu developed the narrative further by likening whale sharks to one of the incarnations (or earthly forms) of Lord Vishnu, Matsya. Vishnu is the Hindu God who is seen as the protector of the world. In his Matsya Avatar (incarnation as a fish), Vishnu took the form of a giant blue fish to rescue the first man, Manu, from a great deluge. 

Nearly 600 whale sharks have been rescued, over the last 11 years, thanks to Morari Bapu’s work. His storytelling, encouraged fishers to participate in the Gujarat Government’s program through which they are compensated for the loss of their nets, if the cut them to free whale sharks. Though compensation does not include their lost catch. The state even celebrates a “Whale Shark Day” on the first full moon in the month of Karthika (around November-December). Several cities in Gujarat including Ahmedabad, Dwarka and Okha have also adopted the whale shark as a mascot. A Wildlife Trust of India project gathering baseline ecological data, promoting awareness for whale shark conservation and whale shark tourism, in collaboration with Tata Chemicals Limited (TCL) and the Forest Department of Gujarat has proven to be a major success story. This project has won a number of conservation awards including the Bombay Natural History Green Governance Award (2005) and the Gujarat Ecology Commission (GEC) Award (2012).

At the end of a long field season, where my morale often dipped, this story proved to be my ray of sunshine. Local excitement was high - it was recounted to me by at least ten individuals. I lived the excitement personally, too, when I was interviewing fishers along the Gujarat Coast. A number of fishers told me with great pride how a whale shark had been released off the Okha Coast a couple of days previously.

The association between religion and conservation is not restricted to Morari Bapu. There are several instances where people's religious beliefs have helped them understand the need to conserve wildlife better. For example, sinking the Virgin Mary statue in Bohol, Philippines has stopped dynamite fishing in the area. Similarly, WTI worked with His Holiness, the Dalai Lama on a project in which His Holiness encouraged his followers to stop using wildlife products. Before his intervention, Tibetans were famous for making clothes with tiger and leopard skins.

The story of the whale shark in Gujarat is not only heartening to hear, but is shows how people are willing to play an active role in conservation if they can only relate to the species being protected. While wrapping up my travels, I explained the plight of seahorse conservation to a researcher from WTI. He looked up at me and said "Maybe what you need is a Morari Bapu for seahorses."
At times conservation just needs a little divine intervention.