The Year in Science: Scarce Sharks Netted

An ecologist with the World Conservation Union discusses how scarce sharks have been netted.

By Shanti Menon
Jan 1, 1998 6:00 AMMay 8, 2023 1:43 PM


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For more than 100 years the only known specimen of the Borneo river shark was a dried and mounted exhibit in a museum in Vienna. Now ten more can be found in a tank inside the house of a fisherman on the Kinabatangan River in Sabah, in the Malaysian part of Borneo.

Some of the credit goes to Sarah Fowler, an ecologist with the World Conservation Union in England, who like other living scientists had never seen a river shark in Malaysia—even though she very much wanted to and even though people in fishing villages had occasionally reported finding them in their nets. We had tried a lot of fishing, but we hadn’t caught any, says Fowler.

It was obvious that we needed to work with people who were out fishing every day of their lives. One family agreed to preserve any sharks they caught in a tank of formalin until Fowler’s next visit.

Early this past year, they showed Fowler’s team a small shark with beady black eyes and a blunt snout—it looked exactly like the museum specimen. Since then the family has caught ten sharks, all about a foot long and probably newborn, which means that sharks are breeding in the river. Fowler thinks that adult Borneo river sharks may grow, like river sharks in other parts of the world, up to nine feet long—too big for the fishermen’s nets.

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