In 2014, when Alifa Bintha Haque returned to Bangladesh after completing her MSc in Biodiversity, Conservation and Management from Oxford University, she was determined to start research on marine conservation.
Research has always been her forte. She believes in evidence-based, inclusive policy and effective management.
However, on her return, she did not know where to start. And so she began visiting coastal areas like Chattogram, Cox's Bazar, Teknaf, Moheshkhali, Kutubdia, and St Martin's Island by herself to observe the state of marine fishing .
"I roamed around and regularly visited the landing sites for sharks and rays. Oneday, I counted up to 10,000 small sharks and gave up counting after I got tired," recalls Alifa, now a faculty of the department of Zoology, University of Dhaka.
"I was overwhelmed. I started writing for grants to research on sharks and rays," added Alifa, who is currently working on saving the sawfish (the sawfish belongs to a family of rays).
Alifa started planning strategically. As there are many landing sites across the coastal region of Bangladesh, she realized that it would be impossible for her to visit all of them.
So, she collaborated with local students and landing site workers to collect time-series data on all landed sharks and rays, including sawfish.
The sawfish is on the verge of extinction, not only in Bangladesh, but also globally.
The species of sawfish found and reported in Bangladesh are the Largetooth Sawfish, the Narrow Sawfish, and the Green Sawfish.
In Bangladesh, there is a myth that sawfish cures cancer. Hence, people are interested in consuming it. These species are also exploited due to a high demand for their fins.
Approximately 36% of all shark and ray species are now threatened with extinction, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species.
The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) has grouped this species under Appendix I (Appendix I includes species threatened with extinction) and they are protected under the Bangladesh's Wildlife Protection Act (2012).
Alifa's team discovered some fascinating information over the last year. They have recorded new fishes in Bangladesh; along with a few 'very threatened' species.
Alifa and her team of researchers intend to provide insights and facts for managing sharks and rays in Bangladesh. Once all their data is analysed, it will help further to save these species.
At the onset of her research, Alifa built a good rapport with the local communities to help her collect information. Then, while researching, she learned many new things that helped her later to connect the dots.
For example, Alifa got to know how financial vulnerability and lack of information among fishers are affecting our biodiversity. At the policy level, we are barely concerned about such factors. The general belief is that fishers, poachers, and traders are significant obstacles in protecting these species, but Alifa strongly disagrees with this opinion.
A combination of poverty and lack of education and facilitation means fishers are not always concerned about saving extinct species. For them, fishing is the only way to earn their livelihood and save their families.
Hence, they are reluctant to release a sawfish alive or to take a positive conservation decision. However, once the situation is correctly explained to them, their views may change. This also needs some crucial facilitations.
Also, according to Alifa, if fishers are assured about receiving compensation, they might not hesitate to cut their nets and release the threatened species into the water when they get caught.
"I remember once a trader voluntarily showed me a rostrum of a sawfish that was more than five feet in length. I told him that this was actually a 'threatened' species and he understood what I said. The very next moment, he gave me that rostrum for research purposes. But he could have easily earned some money from selling that in the market,"Alifa shared with us.
Later, that trader revealed to her that this fish was never found in landings and explained why.
Fishers sell it directly to traders for its high market demand. Each kilogram of its meat is locally sold as high as $40.
Moreover, its fins have a massive demand in the international market and are sold at $350 per kg.
"These are the people who can be easily convinced with the truth, reason, good collaboration, and respect," Alifa voiced.
The professor and conservationist herself wants to make this collaboration. She is currently working on identifying sawfish's critical habitats and she is directly working with fishers and focusing on their barriers and hesitation.
"Once we learn about the issues, we can create a framework to mitigate them," she shared.
However, this is not as easy as it sounds. The government passed Bangladesh Wildlife Protection Act in 2012 but fishers were not aware of it until 2016-17.
Only when different organisations started working with fishers to protect the 'threatened' species did they begin to learn about them. Still, a lack of monitoring and implementation of the law exists.
Therefore, direct cooperation from the government is needed to make a plan and save these species.
The government can run campaigns in schools, markets, and communities to debunk the myth of cancer cure with the help of local NGOs or organisations which are already working with the fishers.
"Until a programme is under state aid, it might not achieve its goal or it cannot be scaled up properly. We may envision a conservation model to protect these species but it needs to be co-designed by coastal fishers to be successful and ethical, and implemented by the state. The departments of fisheries and forest are continuously supporting us. The progress is happening slowly but surely," she concluded.