Great white hope
I'VE SPENT THE PAST FEW WEEKS searching for great white sharks in South Africa, Mexico and on eBay.
I encountered five different individuals in a single day in the cold waters around Dyer Island, came face-to-face with some real whoppers in fabulous 30m visibility at the remote Pacific island of Guadalupe, and then spent a sobering hour poring over scores of their teeth for sale on the Internet.
International trade in great white shark teeth and jaws came under the microscope recently at the latest meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES), in Bangkok.
And, for a change, the outcome was good news.
CITES is an agreement between 166 countries designed to ensure that international trade in wild animals and plants - worth billions of dollars every year - does not threaten their survival.
Essentially, each species covered by the agreement is listed in one of three different appendices, according to the amount of protection it needs: Appendix I bans all trade (except in exceptional circumstances); Appendix II allows strictly controlled trade under a permit system; and Appendix III basically monitors the trade.
The great white shark was added to Appendix II. It was only the third shark to be given such a listing, after basking sharks and whale sharks, so the decision sent out a strong message.
If you're anything like me and spend as much time in the company of sharks as humanly possible, it's easy to forget that the rest of the world still regards the only good shark as a dead one. The message is that, just possibly, this ridiculous attitude might be changing.
Thirty years after Jaws hit our screens, scaring a generation out of the sea and gripping the Western world with anti-shark hysteria, the star of the show has been given a break.
About time, too. As every diver knows, the great white's bad reputation is grossly exaggerated. A few years ago, I was taking part in an aerial survey of whales in the Western Cape, South Africa, when we spotted a couple of good-sized great whites cruising along the coast just beyond the breaking waves.
We circled overhead as the sharks made their way towards an unsuspecting group of surfers sitting on their boards, nonchalantly dangling their legs in the water.
We could do nothing but hold our breath and watch as the sharks resolutely investigated one surfer after another from just a few feet beneath the surface.
The sharks continued on their way, leaving the surfers none the wiser and me strangely embarrassed about suspecting the worst. I should have known better.
The ultimate super-predator is a globally threatened species and already has varying degrees of protection in Australia, Namibia, the Maldives, the USA, Malta and several other countries, but trophy-hunting has always been a major threat. Even in South Africa, which became the first country to protect great whites in 1991, the killing continues.
Local conservationists are convinced that abalone poachers, faced with declining shellfish stocks, are now turning their attention to great whites and selling their jaws and teeth to foreign tourists.
One large set of jaws was valued at US $50,000, while smaller ones typically fetch at least $10,000. Even individual teeth can go for high prices. And inevitably, the value of these trophies will increase as South Africa's shark population decreases.
Recent research strongly suggests that great white populations in many parts of the world have, indeed, decreased - by 20% or more in the past 10 years. No-one knows exactly how many are left, but there can't be many.
The greatest concentrations are in California, Mexico, South Africa, Australia and (probably) the Mediterranean, and even these well-known hotspots are home to relatively few individuals.
I've been cage-diving at Guadalupe every year for the past three and have become quite attached to several easily recognisable sharks with distinctive dorsal fins and impressive scars. It's subjective, but even this simple observation suggests that there can't be too many around this veritable shark Mecca.
In an ideal world, the great white would have gone straight to Appendix I - banning international trade once and for all. But I suppose we should be grateful for small mercies. If one of the most feared animals on the planet can be given official international protection of any kind, perhaps there is hope for the future.
Zoologist, conservationist, writer and broadcaster Mark Carwardine writes each month in DIVER. Visit his website, www.markcarwardine.com