Lack of management intervention on tourism activities, such as hand-feeding, has led to increased injuries on endangered whale sharks or “butanding” in Oslob, Cebu, according to a study by marine experts.
Published this week in the journal Aquatic Conservation, Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems, the study was conducted by the Large Marine Vertebrates Research Institute Philippines (LAMAVE) from 2012 to 2015. It showed the impact of tourism activities on individual whale sharks in Oslob, Cebu.
In a statement on Thursday, Oct. 8, the LAMAVE researchers presented their findings as seen from photographic images of 152 individual whale sharks taken over a period of 34 months (March 2012 – January 2015).
“The team used photo-identification to monitor individual whale sharks’ presence and movement, and gathered data on the presence, size, type, and location of scars on the whole body of these gigantic animals as well as the accumulation of these scars over time,” they explained.
The LAMAVE team compared scarring patterns on whale sharks in Oslob from those in Ningaloo in Australia, the Seychelles, and Mozambique, areas where a prohibition on feeding whale sharks is enforced.
Individual whale sharks observed in Barangay Tan-Awan, where butanding are hand-fed daily as part of tourist interactions, showed “significantly higher number of injury and scars than whale sharks in other non-provisioned or non-fed tourism sites in Australia, Mozambique, and the Seychelles.”
Hand feeding of whale sharks has been a tourism practice in Oslob to lure these large fish near boats that ferry tourists.
The study found that whale sharks in Oslob were “significantly more scarred [sic] than any other studied population: 95 percent of all whale sharks in Oslob had scars on their body, with abrasion being the most common type of scar.”
LAMAVE categorized the scars as “nicks and abrasions,” most likely due to close contact with ropes and small boats in tourism activity areas.
Meanwhile, 28 percent of whale sharks had lacerations, a figure significantly higher than in Ningaloo (Western Australia) and Mozambique, LAMAVE pointed out.
“These were caused by boat propellers of different sizes and could be facilitated both from the habituation to boats caused by the practice of hand-feeding the whale sharks, as well as the increased traffic of motorized vessels in the surroundings of the provisioning area,” the study found.
It further noted that whale sharks that were observed more frequently in the interaction area showed a significantly higher rate of scarring compared to individual sharks that were seen less frequently in the area.
“These regular visitors to Oslob accumulated scars over the observation period and suggest a direct causal link between the exposure to the tourism activities in Barangay Tan-Awan and scarring rates,” LAMAVE said.
It explained that scars and wounds, even if non-lethal, may pose serious risks to the endangered species, as these increase physiological stress, facilitate disease contraction from pathogens like virus and bacteria, and decrease overall health.
The study underscored the urgent need to implement proper management interventions to guarantee that tourism activities do not harm whale sharks.
Under Republic Act 9147, or the Wildlife Resources Conservation and Protection Act, maltreating and/or inflicting injuries on threatened wildlife is prohibited.
The law is reinforced by a joint memorandum circular by the Department of Tourism (DOT), Department of Agriculture (DA), Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG), and Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), which prohibits acts in dedicated interactions sites that would hinder an animals’ health, including injury and distress.
LAMAVE said that the Philippines, as a signatory-country to the United Nations Environment Programme Convention on Migratory Species, should ensure the strict regulation and monitoring of whale shark tourism interaction activities.
It appealed to the DOT, DENR, DA, and DILG to urgently intervene to ensure the sustainable management of tourism activities in the municipality of Oslob, as well as in other regions, “to ensure the long term balance between the socio-economic benefit of the local communities, the conservation of the marine environment, and preservation of endangered protected species like the whale sharks.”