Despite their hunting prowess, refined form and clearly adequate survival skills – they’ve been on earth for a few hundred million years – sharks have an unlucky combination of factors working against their existence at present. Not only are they facing a barrage of human-induced threats, like overfishing, but they have also managed to land up on our bad side. Few animals induce a fear among people as unveiled and widespread as sharks do. And the force of our fear contrasts strongly with the extent of our ignorance about them.
Generally people have the impression that sharks are bloodthirsty murderers, even though they kill fewer people each year than bees, hippos, cars and even selfies do. And although only about a dozen shark species – out of more than 500 – are potentially dangerous to humans, this fear extends to all sharks. Great white sharks in particular have been demonised thanks to Jaws, which also fed into the concept of a ‘rogue shark’ – one that has had a taste of human flesh and is therefore more likely to bite again. Based on this idea, shark culls and hunts have been called for and sanctioned in Australia, Réunion and Egypt.
This loathing means that people kill sharks not only to use or sell their body parts, but for a number of other reasons too: simply out of dislike; because of the perceived threat they pose to humans and fishing gear; in a misguided attempt to protect fishery resources; or for recreation. It also means people are quick to jump to lethal means for mitigating human–shark interactions, despite their ineffectiveness, and even though there are tried-and-tested, non-lethal ways to manage such conflict.
With knowledge comes understanding, and with understanding comes respect. The Save Our Seas Foundation funds numerous shark education and outreach programmes. By educating people – particularly children – and raising awareness about sharks, their diversity, biology, anatomy and behaviour, we can instil a healthy understanding and respect for them and their relatives.