Last week Sophie and I headed to Hermanus to chat social media and South Africa with top local bloggers Dawn Jorgensen, Di Brown and Linda Markovina . They hosted a workshop at the South African Shark Conservancy (SASC), an old stone building fringed with brick-red window frames and tucked into a rocky cliff right next to the ocean. With the crash of the surf as our soundtrack for the day, we hungrily scribbled hints and tips that appeased our appetite for all things travel and tech.
Listening to their exciting stories of trekking gorillas through Uganda and exploring the undiscovered wonder of Swellendam, we were thoroughly absorbed and inspired by the passion of all three women. But embroiled as we are in conservation at Inverdoorn, we couldn't help getting a bit distracted by the work done at the conservancy.
The workshop included an introduction to the Shark Conservancy. During our break we were able to walk around the Old Harbour Museum where they are based, looking at the sharks and talking to the students working there. It's funny that our office in Cape Town is situated just a block from the ocean and yet we spend our days immersed with landlubbers like cheetahs and rhinos.
But whether on land, sea or air these wildly divergent species share something in common: humans. The (hopefully well-oiled) wheels of my mind were set in motion and made me realise that besides the obvious risks facing wildlife, and caused by humans, such as habitat loss and degradation, a big problem they share is misconceptions. Rhinos battle the myth that their horns have medicinal properties; while sharks battle with the idea that we think they're all trying to eat us.
Contrary to what pop culture would have us believe, the great white – a magnificent species in its own right, and responsible for fewer deaths than mosquitoes, hippos and even cows – is not the only shark in the ocean. There are more than 400 species of sharks in the world, and most of them are harmless.
The shark and the rhino share another great problem, and that is the use of their body parts as status symbols. Owning and consuming rhino horn has become increasingly popular among the nouveau riche in parts of Southeast Asia (particularly Viet Nam), while shark fins are used for soup and served as a delicacy. The SASC was established as an active means of supporting shark conservation and creating awareness about the species and the threats it faces.
Inside the conservancy's building are tanks which hold captive sharks used for research and educational purposes. Once the sharks have served their purpose they are released back into the ocean. Some sharks are tagged so that their movements can be monitored in order to track their habitat and range. At the moment the tanks house two sharks, one of which is a striped catshark. Its alternative name is a lot more fun, the pyjama shark – and when you see its beautifully striped skin you'll understand why.
The people working there are so enthusiastic and knowledgeable about their field, and in my never-ending quest for knowledge I listened eagerly to everything they had to say. It's frightening to realise how far-reaching the consequences of human activity are, and overwhelming to think how much we have to save. It's not just rhinos and sharks in South Africa, it's animals in every corner of the world; but as was pointed out at the workshop: "we are the problem and the solution." We have to fix what we've started and conserve the world if we hope to have not only a place to live, but one worth living in.