Volunteering: Protecting whale sharks in the Maldives
So far only a few information are known about the geographical distribution, movement patterns or reproductive strategies of whale sharks. The conservation project in the Maldives that is supported by Natucate is dedicated to researching these fascinating animals.
A body length of up to 12 m makes the whale shark (Rhincodon typus) the largest living fish on earth. Despite this fact there are only few information known about the geographical distribution, their habitats, motion patterns or reproduction strategies – to make it short: Many information which are necessary for the protection of these majestic animals are not yet available.
The Maldives play a significant, maybe even unique, role when it comes to the protection of whale sharks because over the whole year great numbers of the mega vertebrates can be found around the islands. Despite of this potential, there have not been any initiatives for the exploration of whale sharks on the Maldives until 2006. Just then research studies haven been undertaken to learn more about the distribution range and the population numbers of the species.
Within the scope of this newly founded whale shark research project several individuals have been identified and the importance of the protection of these giants was promoted. During the following year over 3370 sightings and 302 individuals have been documented by photographs. The oldest sighting of a whale shark which is still present today goes back to the year of 1999. Future research projects are planning to find out more information about distribution range, motion pattern over long distances as well as diving behaviour of the species.
During the past years abnormalities between the male and female ratio have been observed: 302 individuals have been documented until February 2017 of which 30 were female and 181 male whale sharks. The sex of 91 individuals was not identified. This leads to a so-called male bias, which means that the ratio of the sexes is not even and drawn towards the male sex, in this case of 83%. The whale shark population around the Maldives mainly consists of adult, not yet sexually mature, males. This phenomenon has also been observed in the Indian Ocean, for example in Australia, Mozambique and the Seychelles. The large number of males on the one hand and the missing numbers of females on the other hand are a mystery for researchers. Therefore, there is still demand for more research in this field.
Since 2006, the whale shark research project has performed several school visits, field trips and international research exchange programmes for the locals, especially for children. A close contact to the municipal authorities, representatives of the local industries and the population are another important part of the project. With this approach the project was able to establish a better understanding for the protection of the endangered whale sharks among the local communities. Recently the project has written guidelines for the tourism industry, especially dive tour operators, and has successfully implemented these in cooperation with the government.
In addition to this great achievement, the largest marine protective area of the Maldives was founded in 2009 which is administered by the regional government. This protective area includes the main habitations of the Maldivian whale sharks. For the future, the whale shark research project aims at promoting the management and supporting strategies of the area even further and to include locals even more.