Hunted to the brink of extinction during the 70s and
80s, the most feared and misunderstood killer of the
seas seems to be staging a comeback in South Africa. But
such was the damaged inflicted on the great white shark
in the aftermath of Steven Spielberg's 1975 blockbuster
film 'Jaws' and so little actually known about this
peerless predator that the future is far from certain.
"The alarm has been raised on the white shark, which is
a great improvement from 10 years ago. But it could be
too little, too late," said a spokesman of the first
Jaws film. "There is too little knowledge of their
longevity, feeding habits or mortality from fishing and
"They are already showing signs of recovery," said a
member of the South African White Shark Research
Institute. "If we can sustain their food supplies, they
Great white sharks, which can grow up to seven meters
in length and four tons in weight over a lifetime,
variously put at between 25 and 50 years, are now a
protected species in most parts of the world. It is a
far cry from the time when professional hunters and
trophy seekers took to the waves of California, South
Africa and Western Australia – the main areas of
concentration – in search of the animal's huge jaws.
Before the film, you could get white shark jaw sets for
nothing. After that, they suddenly became unavailable.
Even today, a big set of jaws – which can be up to 2
meters across, can fetch up to US$50,000, with smaller
sets changing hands for around US$15,000. The main
problem caused by this hunting was that it focused on
the bigger animals – the females – which only reach
sexual maturity after about 15 years and are believed to
breed just a few times during their lives.
natural enemies and a long life span, the rate of what
scientists call 'recruitment' of new shark pups is very
slow. Killing breeding females threatens the entire
white shark population. There was in fact a steep
decline in the adult female population and an equally
sharp drop in the number of smaller animals two decades
ago. Today, there are some signs that the smaller ones
are growing to maturity and hopefully, they will breed.
The trouble is that the biggest single threat to the
sharks is humans. There is still some poaching of the
white shark, both for its jaws and for its dorsal fin,
considered expensive and macho delicacy in the rich
dining tables of China. The trade in shark fins, which
is not illegal except for white sharks, is all
controlled by the Chinese and Taiwanese triads. Hong
Kong used to be the main market, but now mainland China
is taking over.
One of the main problems still facing
white sharks is competitions between the various
research bodies. "The white shark has become the Holy
Grail. There is a lot of ego, a lot of competition. What
we need is partnerships," said a research scientist.
"Jaws did a lot of damage to the white shark, but it
might not have all been negative. No one at the time
understood enough to realize we were portraying the
animal very differently from the truth. But I hope the
spin-off from Jaws has been positive for white sharks
and outweighs the bounty it put on their heads.
(a) It means 'a prized item that everyone attempts to get or protect'.
(b) While the film 'Jaws' has accelerated the hunting for white sharks,
it ahs also aroused a lot of interest among conservationists, leading to
the finding of the actual situation of the misunderstood killer. In the
process, efforts have been taken to protect them.