It’s officially tiger season once again on the Aliwal Shoal, and we couldn’t be more excited to see the return of our beautiful striped friends. In the last few weeks, we’ve seen three separate individuals around the bait drum, and hopefully we’ll be lucky enough to see many more before the season is out. Most excitingly, thanks to the photo ID project that we started at the beginning of this year, we were able to recognise one of the sharks as China, a big female that was last spotted in March 2012. It is so thrilling to see familiar sharks returning, and gratifying that we’re beginning to see the fruits of our fledgling ID project.
The concept behind the ID project is simple- by photographing the tigers that visit our shores between the months of November and June, we can study their stripe patterns and distinguishing scars to establish a database of individual animals. Once you start looking closely at a tiger’s stripes, you realise how absolutely unique they really are; for example, China has a upside-down heart shape on her right flank just below her pectoral, while one of our most frequent visitors for 2013, Alba, has one that resembles a lightning bolt. Some of our sharks have other, more obvious markings that tell them apart; my personal favourite Penelope has a large notch in her dorsal fin, (as if her ever-friendly nature wasn’t enough to distinguish her).
Photo identification is one of the most widely used methods of non-invasive data collection, and we believe that it has real value for our tigers. By creating a library of individuals, we can begin to record how often they visit the bait drums and their behavioural patterns while they’re there, and even recognise recurring visitors from one year to the next. We are exceptionally lucky on the Shoal to have reliable access to this beautiful species during the summer months, and we believe it is our responsibility to use that fact to contribute in some small way towards aiding their conservation. The key to all conservation efforts is knowledge, and observing individual tigers in their natural environment is one of the best ways to gain that knowledge.
Data collection is so important because, without it, it is almost impossible to achieve legislative protection for a species. There are over a thousand species of shark and ray in the world’s oceans, and over 46% of those species are categorised as Data Deficient on the IUCN Red List. None of the few shark species to has been granted international protection is among that 46%, proving that research and sufficient data are vital to conservation efforts. Although tiger sharks do have a classification (Near Threatened), they are not currently protected by any international trade laws like those afforded by CITES, nor do they enjoy any national protection within South Africa. The more we can learn about these sharks, the more likely it is that this tragic state of affairs will one day change.
It is becoming increasingly more important that this change is effected, and soon. Although tiger sharks are technically afforded some protection inside the Aliwal Shoal Marine Protected Area, there are no laws to prevent them from being killed beyond its boundaries. Even the supposed sanctuary of the MPA is something of a farce, considering that several shark net beaches exist within its perimeters. The shark nets, which are in place all along the KwaZulu-Natal coastline, are run by the Natal Sharks Board and are specifically designed to target three species; Great Whites, Tigers and Zambezi Sharks. The nets are indiscriminate, not only affecting our tigers but also our oceanic blacktips, our turtles, dolphins, rays and whales. The nets are also pointless, in that they do not provide the bather safety they promise; the nets do not reach the seafloor and are little more than an elaborate placebo considering that 40% of sharks caught in the nets are caught on the side nearest the beach.
Tiger sharks are also at risk from offshore longline fisheries and are sought after by illegal shark finning operations. Their fins are harvested for the lucrative Asian shark fin soup market; according to studies completed in 2011, they are among the fourteen species most targeted for this despicable practice. Worldwide, it is estimated that populations of tiger sharks have declined by between 65- 97% in the last twenty years. Many people believe tigers to be one of the most deadly sharks, but despite their prevalence in our waters and the high numbers of people that swim, dive, spearfish and surf every here every day, the International Shark Attack File states that the last shark attack fatality in KwaZulu-Natal was in 1999. This fact, combined with the desperate statistics of decline for this species, suggests that we are far more of a threat to these animals than they are to humans.
Given the extent of the threats to the continued existence of tiger sharks on our coast, our tiger ID project gives us some reassurance by allowing us to recognise and record individuals each time they return safely to the Shoal. More importantly though, it provides a real way for members of the diving public to contribute to tiger conservation and to become more closely connected to the fight for their survival. We encourage those who dive with us to add their tiger photos to our growing library, and to follow the progress of these beautiful and charismatic creatures. We hope that by giving them names and personifying them, it will encourage people to become more emotionally attached to their fate. It is our greatest hope that with your help, we will continue to welcome our tigers back next November, and again for many, many Novembers after that.