By: Rafid Shidqi
“My dad catches this shark!” A little boy shouted his reply from the corner of the class in response to my question. My team and I were doing our outreach activities in two schools in Alor, Indonesia where local people target thresher sharks to sell and consume their meat.
The rest of the students in the classroom laughed when I showed a picture of an elderly man and told them that thresher sharks can live to be up to 60 years old, just like our grandparents.
Children in Lewalu and Ampera already know what a thresher shark is; some of their parents are thresher shark hunters. Our mission for these outreach activities is simply to grow their compassion toward this animal which, to date, they only know as a food source. We have to share the material as generally as possible to avoid any sense of controversy among the adults, in particular among the teachers who are with us in the classroom. In fact, this is quite challenging to do.
The headmaster offered an introduction for the team. He said, “these people, our brothers and sisters, are visiting us today to give us information about thresher sharks, which are the source of living for the communities here. I hope you all can learn and benefit from what they will share.”
I tried to adjust my thoughts to make it clear that our knowledge isn’t supposed to support catching thresher sharks. It’s a fine line to walk.
I did this kind of presentation before at Lamakera, a village that was once the biggest manta ray hunting community in the world. In 2014, manta ray fishing was banned throughout the country and the policy was strongly opposed by the community groups that lived there. There was a strong sentiment about the education program back then, one that I was involved in. The communities were blocking our efforts to change the behaviour of their children because they wanted their children to view the manta ray as something they can harvest, and to continue the tradition of hunting.
Even though Alor is only separated from Lamakera by a few islands, we were relieved that the atmosphere in Alor wasn’t as intense as it was in Lamakera. In Alor, fishers are aware about environmental sustainability already. They’re completely against bomb-fishing, trawls, and other practices that they believe would destroying the ocean. Their history is actually attached to the ocean. There is a tribe which they say was descended from the ocean spirit. Thus, respecting the ocean is the first rule to live by. This traditional belief is not shared by all islands.
Through education, we hope to shape children’s minds for the better. We designed a children’s book for this purpose. It’s a story about a little thresher shark called Tresi that got lost in the ocean and was separated from his mother who was caught by a fisher. Two kids from Alor —based on real children from the villages —were there to help. They went on an adventure exploring Alor’s waters, meeting many new friends.
“Tresi the thresher has a family too!” one girl in the back of the classroom exclaimed after the presentation. The other kids shouted their agreement. This book was meant to offer a simple story about an animal that has a trait in common with humans. We all have family. We wanted to reach the minds of these children and transform their image of the thresher from being a food source, to becoming a friend.
Many of the thresher sharks that are caught in Alor are pregnant and often carry two little pups. Kids gather around when fishers cut the womb to see if the babies are big enough to survive. They’ll give a little massage to the pups as a way to revive them before setting them back in the ocean. Kids would cheer and swim next to the little sharks they release, until they are gone to the deep water. We hope they’ll believe in keeping these friends safe.
Rafid Shidqi is project leader for a 2018 CLP Future Conservationist Award. This outreach work is part of the team’s CLP project activities.