Keeping shark attacks in perspective
Recently the media has been full of stories about 'killer sharks' and, according to a leading expert, it could be a change in human behaviour that is creating the conditions for such incidents.
Richard Pierce, a UK-based shark conservationist, writer and broadcaster, believes that because we spend more time in the water, the risk of confrontation between man and shark is increasing.
However, he said that there was no reason to suspect a change in shark behaviour, rather that the clustering of such incidents was coincidence with the media attention giving the impression of something more.
He was speaking after a month which has seen the tragic death of a British man attacked by a shark while on honeymoon in the Seychelles in the Indian Ocean. Ian Redmond, 30, from Lancashire, was terribly injured in the attack off Anse Lazio beach on Praslin, which happened while he was snorkelling. It was the second fatal shark attack in the same area within a month. What added to the shock effect of the incident was that the Seychelles is not known as a hotspot for shark attacks, which makes the two recent deadly attacks all the more unusual.
After media publicity about the attack, news emerged of similarly shocking events in Russia when it was reported that a young man lost both his arms in the waters off Russia's east coast.A day later, a teenager's legs were torn off in the same waters. In response, the authorities temporarily banned swimming at several beaches in coastal Primorsky Krai, along the Sea of Japan. There had also been a report of a third attack.
Again, although sharks were known in the area, attacks on people had been unheard of. In the Russian incidents, suspicion centre on great white sharks, which have occasionally been sighted in the Sea of Japan.
Richard, chairman of both the Shark Trust and the Shark Conservation Society, said: "I don't think anything is happening as such. People ask if global warming is changing shark behaviour and shark movements but there is no science to suggest that.
"And there is no such thing as a shark telegraph whey contact each other and say it's time to attack humans. I think these are random incidents but when they happen they make the news."
He said that the incidents attracted such attention because they tapped into the human 'obsession' and 'dread' associated with sharks.
Richard said: "Shark attacks press three human fear buttons, one of which is the fear of being eaten alive and another of which is the fear of being out of their element, not having their feet on the ground. If you asked people would they prefer to be charged by a lion or a shark most would say lion because they can run away or climb a tree.
"The third one is the fear of the unknown. It can be pretty terrifying being in 200 feet of water and not knowing what's in the void below. What made Jaws such a remarkable film was that within the first three minutes it had pressed all three buttons."
Having said, that he acknowledges that attacks do happen. He said: "There are more people on the planet, nearby seven billion now, and we have more money and more leisure time so there are more of us in the water. The invention of the wetsuit means we can spend more time in the water as well so the chances of humans meeting sharks increases."
For all that, he said that shark 'attacks' had remained stable at 100 a year for 20 years, and that included incidents when the creatures simply bump into swimmers. Mr Pierce said: "The number of fatalities has stayed constant at less than ten a year, six last year, four so far this year. Compare that with the 38 million sharks killed each year by Man."
He said that many attacks happened either at dawn or dusk when sharks were hunting but it was believed that they were really after other prey. "Most of the shark attacks on humans tend to be mistaken identity," he concluded.
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