ENDANGERED SPECIES ESSAY

We must safeguard the web of life and care about the other living species that we share this planet with. Pygmy tarsiers eat and host bugs that we’ve seen at home — insects, spiders, lizards, bedbugs, lice, fleas, roundworms, and tapeworms. The vaquitas are preyed upon by large sharks and killer whales, keeping them away from us. But only 10 vaquitas are left and in their absence, the diet of sharks and whales may change. A tiger in the wild indicates that the forest it inhabits is healthy and diverse. As of now, there are 3,900 tigers in the wild globally, and more than twice as many (8,000) in captivity. By protecting the web of life, we build a kinder world for everyone.

Believed to be extinct

“There is no polite way to say that business is destroying the world.” ~Paul Hawken.

“Chinese people didn’t know their soup was made from shark fins, as the name of the dish translates to ‘fish wing soup’ in Mandarin. One in five respondents believed that sharks could grow back their fins.” ~ WildAid

The Pondicherry Shark (Carcharhinus hemiodon), once considered extinct for 41 years since 1979, was reportedly seen by fishermen across the Indian Ocean, in Sri Lanka and Maldives rivers up to 2016. Twenty specimens were found in markets.

Field biologists Mahesh Babu and Ganesh Pallela, East Godavari River Estuarine Ecosystem Foundation (EGREE), spotted a Pondicherry shark along River Godavari in Kakinada, India on two consecutive days in 2018. They photographed it and sent the photo to Scientist Anil Mohapatra, Zoological Survey of India, who confirmed that it was a Pondicherry shark.

Pondicherry sightings occurred in the EGREE region from 2007 to 2016. This documentation led Biologist and Conservationist Forrest Galante to seek a Pondicherry Shark in the wild. Discovery Channel’s Extinct or Alive: The Lost Shark, covered his journey.

Galante tagged a live juvenile bull shark, which has the same ecological niche as Pondicherry Sharks. Possibly, they shared migratory patterns, too. By studying the bull shark they hoped to learn where Pondicherry Sharks go, where they hide, how they interact with their habitat, and why they disappeared.

Zoologist Jessica Summerfield, Galante’s wife, found a dead Pondicherry that was genetically tested and confirmed authentic. This led the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) to rank it as Critically Endangered.

Bad soup

Threats to Pondicherry include overfishing, unregulated sport, and commercial fishing. A major threat is shark fin soup, which largely enriched the Chinese economy. Every year 70-100 million sharks are killed annually for their fins, regardless of species.

Shark fin soup originated from the Northern Song dynasty (960 to 976 A.D.) under Emperor Taizu. Sharks were hard to catch, so the soup displayed the emperor’s power, and it was only served to important guests.

Today, this soup displays status among China’s wealthy, served at weddings, special holidays, et. al. Market price of fins costs about US$450/pound, and a bowl of soup can cost $100. But this soup is cruelly made.

Shark finning

Shark finning involves catching a shark, cutting off all its fins while it’s still alive, and tossing the shark back into the sea to die. Shark meat isn’t tasty and has little value, so fishermen dispose of them to leave space for tuna and swordfish. You can see shark finning here.

Shark fins add texture. Flavor comes from other ingredients. Dishes with shark fins are the most expensive ones like shark fin omelet, and braised shark fin soup with crab meat. Giant shark fins are used as decorations.

‘Value” of shark fins

Traditional Chinese medicine, say this soup can increase virility, treat cancer, and lengthen life. But the cartilage in shark fins has no nutritional value, and shark fins have dangerously high levels of mercury from ocean pollution.

A 2001 Wild Aid report revealed that globally distributed Hong Kong shark fins had mercury levels 42 times higher than safety limits for people. One bowl of shark fin soup won’t hurt, but prolonged high-level exposure to mercury will cause permanent nerve and brain damage and can inhibit fetal cognitive development.

Dead sharks

One hundred million sharks are killed annually for their fins, and the IUCN ranked 181 shark species as vulnerable, endangered, or critically endangered.

Pondicherry’s unique qualities

The extremely rare Pondicherry shark is distinct because when it mates, it hugs. This stocky, three-foot-long, shark has a long, pointed snout. Its teeth are serrated at the base and smooth at the point. It thrives in both salt water and fresh water, and it doesn’t threaten people.

The Pondicherry’s first dorsal fin (on its back) and two pectoral fins (on the sides, near the head) have black tips. The dorsal fin’s rear tip is large and long.

History and habitat

The Pondicherry once swam throughout the Indo-Pacific coastal waters, from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific’s western and central oceans, and interconnecting seas linking the two in Indonesia. They traveled from the Gulf of Oman to New Guinea.

Today, they may dwell along the Indo-Pacific coast, possibly traveling from the Indian coast to the Gulf of Oman, and perhaps on West Bengal’s Hooghli river and southern Vietnam’s Saigon river. But scientists aren’t sure.

Searching for the Pondicherry

The Pondicherry, called ‘Pala Sora’ in India, depends on 20 museum specimens from the Gulf of Oman, Borneo, India, and Java markets to confirm their species.

Galante, who specializes in seeking “extinct” animals, does so if the animal meets four criteria, namely:

  • Reported sightings. In 2011 a Pondicherry Shark specimen was caught in the Menik Ganga River, Sri Lanka. Another Pondicherry was seen and photographed in October 2014 by Madura de Silva, of the Wildlife Conservation Society, again in the Menik Ganga River. These sharks were also found in markets up to 2019.

  • Whether the scientific world is looking for them

  • Sufficient undamaged habitat

  • Adequate prey source

The Pondicherry met all of the above requirements, so Galante, with three scientists and Discovery’s seven-man production team, tried but never found one in the wild.

Their search led them to freshwater rivers where sharks bottleneck, making them easy prey for illegal gillnetters. It was Galante’s wife, Jessica Summerfield, who found a dead Pondicherry in a remote fishing village in Sri Lanka.

She sent fin clippings and a tooth to a lab for genetic testing, and the lab confirmed that they had a dead Pondicherry shark, which is now displayed in the Museum of Sri Lanka.

Pondicherry in existence, threats

A 2020 IUCN report, for lack of records, concluded there may be between 250 to 50 adult Pondicherry Sharks in the wild. Its biggest threat is the ignorance and mistaken beliefs of people.

The shark fin trade grew the economies of some Asian countries, correlating with a drastic reduction in global shark populations.

Costa Rica, the shark finning capital of the world, lost 60% of its sharks in just nine years. Overfishing is another major threat to sharks.

Sometimes, small juvenile sharks are eaten by birds and large fish, but their biggest predator is humans who either intentionally or accidentally find them as bycatch in their gill nets.

Underwater Spa

A Pondicherry shark was reportedly found at an “underwater spa” where tiny wrasse fish clean their teeth, skin, and gills. It’s a symbiotic relationship. Galante’s went to this “spa” and spotted four shark species, but no Pondicherry.

However, Summerfield’s Pondicherry was genetically validated, causing the IUCN to rank it as Critically Endangered. With this upgraded status, fishermen will engage in Pondicherry data collection, and locals will be educated and motivated to preserve and protect this shark.

The legal dilemma of shark finning

All sharks, including Pondicherry Sharks, are victims of shark finning. But Pondicherry Sharks are Critically Endangered. All sharks need protection for as long as there is a public demand and extremely wealthy people will spend outrageous sums on shark fin-containing products.

Some countries have laws against the shark trade, but people circumvent them. In 2013, some 12 US states (including California, Hawaii, and New York) banned the possession, sale, offer of trade, and distribution of shark fins.

But in 2019, a man from China Gate Restaurant said its online menu, which lists shark fin soup, was a “mistake”. Still, if you google the restaurant in Los Angeles, its menu still lists sharks fin and crab soup.

On a state level, there’s no ban on importing foreign-caught shark products. In 2001, the trade of the Pondicherry shark (Pala sora in India), was banned, but if you google “pala sora Indian markets”, you’ll see images of them in supermarkets and links to youtube videos demonstrating recipes with Pondicherry Sharks.

Divisional Forest Officer (Wildlife)/CEO EGREE Anant Shankar said they’re collaborating with fishermen and mobilizing the community against Pondicherry and other shark trades.

In 2003, the EU required a fin landing weight of 5% ratio per total shark’s weight. But a fin set actually weighs 2% of total body weight, allowing more fins to accompany each whole animal.

In 2013 the EU required whole sharks with all fins attached naturally to their bodies. This more strictly implemented the finning ban, but it doesn’t address fins exported as dried products.

Power of truth

Education is vital so people can make conscious choices. A WildAid report cited a 2006 shark fin campaign in China where 75 percent of Chinese people didn’t know their soup was made from shark fins, as the name of the dish translates to “fish wing soup” in Mandarin. One in five respondents believed that sharks could grow back their fins.

People must know about the cruelty of finning, so they’ll be motivated to refuse shark fin soup and won’t patronize stores or restaurants that sell shark products. This could be the strongest force against shark finning.

Ecological value of sharks

Pondicherry Sharks probably feed on small fishes, cephalopods (eg. squid, cuttlefish, and octopus), and crustaceans (eg. lobsters, crabs, and shrimp). However, scientists aren’t sure.

Every shark matters, for certain, and losing one species means other species will follow. The Pondicherry Shark, though small, is the story of every shark, including giant sharks.

The ecological value of sharks

Giant sharks like the great whites, bull sharks and tiger sharks are apex predators, meaning at the top of the food chain. No animal preys on them.

When a big shark preys, its targets scatter. This affects how other species feed, and what they eat. It keeps seagrass and coral reef habitats healthy. Without sharks, a decline in seagrass beds and coral reefs will follow, and there will be fewer fish for commercial fishermen.

Weak and sick prey are removed by big sharks. Their presence in an ecosystem indicates a healthy ocean, maintenance of the food chain, and species diversity.

Without sharks, larger predatory fish such as groupers will grow in numbers and eat herbivore fish. With fewer herbivores, macroalgae (eg. seaweed and kelp) will expand, agitating corals and dominating the ecosystem.

By disrupting corals, 25% of all marine species become homeless. Corals help people by:

  • Keeping over 500 million people fed

  • Providing a livelihood for millions in the tourist industry (including hotel workers, snorkel guides, dive guides, etc)

  • Protecting coastal communities from high-impact waves during tropical storms, hurricanes, and tsunamis.

  • Provide homes for fish that have medical components that are beneficial to humans.

Big shark, small shark

Removing giant sharks will affect smaller sharks, as giant sharks are oftentimes the only predator of small sharks. Without large sharks, smaller shark numbers will increase, which may sound good for the Pondicherry, but isn’t really.

In the 1970s, large sharks were overfished on the coast of New England. This caused a five-fold increase in dogfish sharks up to the 1980s when they thrived without their predators. Fishermen went after dogfish, however, which commanded higher rates, and their populations also fell.

In the UK, dogfish were sold as “rock salmon” in fish and chips stores. As a result, dogfish sharks experienced a sharp drop in 2019 by 95 percent. This is particularly true in the northeast Atlantic, where it’s considered critically endangered.

In sum, the story of the Pondicherry shark is a warning bell that sounds the alarm for all sharks, big and small. One can’t live without the other, and we can’t live without all of them.

Note: The ocean occupies over 70 percent of the earth’s surface, and 97% of the earth’s water lies in the ocean.