The Pondicherry Shark On the Most Wanted List

Representational Image of a Pondicherry Shark
The world's most wanted shark has never killed anyone. But it's a species on the brink of extinction.

‘Most wanted’ lists are not just for criminals. Or indeed, for humans. Some include sharks, but not for any crimes they might have committed.

Carcharhinus hemiodon, also known as the Pondicherry shark. Last seen: 1979.

As part of an initiative by Global Wildlife Conservation (GWC), the Lost Species organisation had put up a list of the 25 most wanted ‘lost species’ on earth. Creatures so endangered that they haven’t been seen in years – even decades. The Pondicherry shark is one of these.

The last captive sharks were found before 1900. This, for a species that once spanned the shores of two oceans.

The Pondicherry shark is a type of shark known as ‘Requiem’ – a word that is a sort of ode to the dead (alternate etymologies trace the name to the word, ‘reschignier’, which means ‘to grimace while bearing teeth”). A great deal of what we know about this shark was written by two German biologists in 1839 – Johannes Müller and Jakob Henle. They describe it as a small shark, probably up to one metre long – and provided a small sketch.

Even in the sketch, the shark looks fairly displeased, for it has reason to be. The Pondicherry shark is critically endangered on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature red list; one step away from extinction. This, for a species that once spanned the Gulf of Oman, The Malabar, Canara and Pondicherry coasts as well as those of Borneo and Java – and perhaps even as far as the South China Sea. It’s not known whether this was a coastal or a river shark, given that all specimens have been found in rivers.

Range of the Pondicherry Shark, calculated using IUCN data (Image by YZX/ Creative Commons)

What explains their sudden disappearance?

The Shark toll

Fishing is the largest threat to the world’s sharks (Image: 7MB)

Requiem sharks are known to have been involved in numerous attacks on humans, but the Pondicherry shark was the exception. It feeds only on small fishes and crustaceans, which it once found plenty of in the tropical Indo-Pacific region.

Finding and locating the shark is crucial to understanding its range and formulating an action plan to save it. But trying to get close enough to a shark to identify it is dangerous work.

Wildlife documentary filmmaker, Rob Stewart, died in 2017 while diving to find a rare species of sawfish. He was shooting a sequel to Sharkwater, his acclaimed 2007 documentary on sharks, with the aim of changing the perceptions around sharks. The film began with him kneeling alongside a flurry of sharks, petting them when they got close. Ultimately, it was no shark that killed him, but oxygen deprivation.

In 2016, there was a breakthrough – a group of wildlife enthusiasts spotted a shark in Yala, Sri Lanka’s southeastern coast, in the Menik River. The Wildlife Conservation Society of Galle (WCSG) had earlier netted a shark in that river. They took a photograph and released it back into the water. Experts later confirmed it as the missing Pondicherry Shark.

The counter can now be reset. Last sighting: 2016. But the question that remains is how to conserve the elusive shark. Sri Lanka’s coast overlooks the Indian Ocean, a water body already stressed by overfishing. For conservationists, the sight of sharks in these waters would be a good thing – as they are indicators of good coral health.

Of course, too little is known about the Pondicherry shark to come to this conclusion. The Sri Lanka sightings only add to the confusion over whether it’s a pure river shark like its cousin, the Ganges Shark (also critically endangered, but found in the Ganges-Hooghly river system).

The IUCN lists no conservation measures underway to save this long-lost shark. Of India’s 60 species of shark, only the Pondicherry, Whale, Ganges and Speartooth species are covered under wildlife protection laws.

The truth about sharks is they are nowhere as dangerous to human beings as human beings are to them. Last year, sharks killed about 84 people worldwide in unprovoked attacks. By contrast, humans kill over 100 million sharks every year – hunting them for their flesh. It’s likely that this was the fate of the Pondicherry shark, mistaken for other species and unintentionally caught along with other fish species in commercial fisheries. The following video shows an unknown variety of shark being hauled out by coastal fishermen.

Since 5,000 years, humans have been hunting and selling shark meat. For much of this time, consumption was not favoured as there was no way to store the flesh before it started to smell bad. The real genocide started after World War I when refrigeration technology became common – and methods were developed to tan and use the shark’s skin. Soon, commercial fishing started to include sharks in their catches.

India has no domestic market for shark products but is among the largest exporters of shark in the world – number two by the number of sharks and number 13 by the number of fins. It’s a lucrative business, valued around $1 billion worldwide. But in no way is it sustainable – shark stocks take more time to replenish compared to other fish species.

The world’s most-wanted shark may have a presence in Sri Lanka now, but the difficult part is yet to come. Pulling a species back from the Critically Endangered zone is difficult and more needs to be known about the Pondicherry shark before it can have a shot at getting out the GWC’s list.

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