29 Aug 2018 Story Oceans & seas

A shark scientists’ guide to conservation

Credit: Gibbs Kuguru.

Gibbs Kuguru is an award-winning shark researcher and conservationist. After spending years researching sharks off the coast of South Africa, Gibbs has moved to Kenya to pursue his passion for shark research and fill the gaps in existing marine data. He aims to use tools and techniques that can be implemented for conservation across Africa. This World Water Week, themed “Water, ecosystems and human development”, Kuguru shares the top three take-aways from his research.

  1. We must all take responsibility for the environment

Our existence is contingent on the existence of the ocean. The destruction of the oceans will destroy our way of life. We must develop and support technologies that make life more convenient while enhancing the environment. For example, industries should take responsibility for their plastic or carbon emissions.

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Kuguru believes that sharing research in a digestible way is crucial for change. Credit: Lilian van Kesteren.

I believe that education about how to use our environmental resources efficiently is key to protecting our planet. We need to educate our children better, so they can be more scientifically literate. Everyone can start by finding one thing to change in their lives. You can give up eating meat for one day a week or refuse single-use plastics. Start small, and once you get used to that, integrate something else into your life. Small steps will create big change.

  1. Scientists are citizens too – and community involvement is powerful

As a scientist, you are meant to be objective and present facts. But I believe that scientists also have a responsibility to interpret data for policy makers, so they can make practical, informed decisions. Practical actions require community and government involvement.

Turning research into policy starts with ensuring that policymakers understand what you are trying to achieve. For example, DNA barcoding is a tool that allows you to take a little piece of tissue from sharks and differentiate the species based on a few characters in the genetic code in a cost-effective way. With this technique, I could go to any fish market, take a little piece of meat or fin from one of the vendors and identify illegally traded species. This tool can be used across Africa, to allow countries to track the fish and sharks they eat and to protect endangered stocks.

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Investigating the great depts to collect marine data. Credit: Jo Hurford.

As a geneticist, it is my responsibility to communicate the huge potential of DNA based research to decision makers, to protect endangered stocks and track shark trade. It is also important to involve the public in creating tools and solutions, so that results are relevant to communities, and this is what I am doing along the coast of Kenya, with organizations such as Ocean Sole.

  1. Forge your own path and expect the unexpected

My voyage in marine conservation began with a university bulletin that said: “Come dive with great white sharks in South Africa!” Despite my immense fear of sharks, I signed up. This decision left me waking up in cold sweats in anticipation. Then, on my first day on the cage diving boat, I saw my first shark. I was love-struck. From that moment, I knew that’s how I wanted to spend my days.

Like everyone else, I wanted to study the great white sharks - often considered the most charismatic shark species. But with more than 20 different species, I decided to research the lesser-known Smooth Hammerhead Shark. The path ahead was dimly lit because so little was known, but this has been the most fulfilling journey. I have learnt a lot as a scientist, but also as a citizen of our blue planet. It is an incredible responsibility to make sure that this species threatened with extinction should survive.

My most interesting findings are those that contradict my initial expectations. Through studying sharks, my understanding of their complex nature evolved and even my perception of sharks changed from fear to reverence. I think it’s important for everyone to connect with nature to find its wonders. The natural world does not always comport itself in a way that is predictable or straightforward and that’s what makes it beautiful.