Feeding Whale Sharks: Much Ado About Butanding
Cebu Daily News recently reported two injured whale sharks in the seas off a coastal barangay of Oslob, Cebu. One whale shark had a spear driven to its body and another got struck in the head by a motorboat’s propeller. The incident had drawn widespread condemnation from all sectors of Cebuano society. A local officer of the World Wildlife Fund laid the blame on the “domestication” of the whale sharks or butanding as the reason for the incident and thus called for the stopping of whale shark-feeding activities due to its effect on the species’ “natural hunting and feeding patterns.”
The risk that habituation presents is troubling. Once animals are habituated, they drop their guard and are more vulnerable to a wide range of human activities. According to Mark Orams (2002:285):
An animal has few cues about whether a human approaching it has good or bad intentions and, unfortunately, not all humans are wildlife lovers.
…(A)nimals that become accustomed to receiving food from people tend to frequent areas where there is a lot of human activity. These areas tend to present greater risks to animals that are not adapted to avoid such things as cars, boats and aeroplanes.
It is in a wild animal’s best interest therefore, for them to remain wary of people. Of course, when they are being regularly provisioned with food they lose this wariness, they become habituated to human contact and, as a result, they are at greater risk of injury from someone who wished to do them harm.
Some experts posit that dependence on human-sourced food reduces the chances of a species to survive in the wild. Species that are heavily dependent lose the skills needed in the search and pursuit of prey and may die if supplemental feeding is stopped. Although the literature on whale sharks is silent on this topic, I think that the volume of a whale shark’s food requirement is too high to be completely dependent on hand-feeding. For the whale sharks, people are alternative food sources–one among many in a whale shark’s array of foraging strategies. Similar to the fishes of the Great Barrier Reef and the dolphins frequenting Australian tourist spots, the whale sharks might also have retained their foraging skills despite getting human-sourced food from tourists.
So, should the municipality of Oslob continue with the practice of whale-shark feeding? The typical knee-jerk reaction is to implement a total ban and just let the animals be “wild and free.” Aside from the obvious challenges of enforcement, this would also set back the gains of many NGOs that encourage fishers to shift from exploitative fishing to sustainable wildlife tourism. Historically, southern Cebu was the seat of commercial fishing in the Visayas, renowned in the past for the destructive muroami fishing technique. It is therefore imperative that communities and fishers in Oslob reexamine their relationship with the sea and allow them to explore alternative connections with the marine fauna and flora.
The municipality of Oslob should also learn from the practices of institutions involved in endangered species conservation, where supplemental feeding is a cornerstone activity in population recovery strategies. If done properly, food provisioning could help increase a species’ reproductive success (i.e., although no specific studies have been conducted on supplemental feeding and its impact on whale shark population, i think it’s worth a try). The Philippine Tarsier Foundation, for example, conduct habitat enhancement activities to increase tarsier prey population. In Africa, “vulture restaurants” have been opened up in various sites to extend the chances of population recovery for critically-endangered birds (see TIME article). Perhaps, the propensity of tourists and tour guides to feed whale sharks can be redirected to boost breeding and reproduction albeit in a controlled and carefully-managed setting (i.e. sensitive to the dangers that habituation may pose to the animals).
People are part of the natural environment. We shape and influence the environment around us and thereby present challenges to other species. Every habitat, migration route, ecological niche bear a mark of humanity’s impact (e.g., from climate change to predatory fishing). We are the ‘facts of life’ that other species learn to negotiate and adapt. The problem with a total ban (i.e., “of leaving animals alone”) is the implicit assumption that we can separate ourselves from the lives of other species. We are part of every species’ reality and the primary driving force in their survival or extinction.
Also posted also in Anthropology Corner.
Orams, Mark B. Feeding wildlife as a tourism attraction: a review of issues and impacts in Tourism Management 23 (2002) 281-293.