Saving the Sawfish
I jumped with excitement when my boss asked me “Would you be interested in working on the Sawfish conservation project?” as I walked in to his office on the first day of my internship at WWF-Pakistan. Even though I had extensive knowledge about sawfishes, I have only had a chance to see one sawfish in my life which was in Dubai Aquarium and Underwater Zoo during my internship back in 2018. The first time I saw that animal I was in awe about how beautiful and mesmerizing it was and every day I got to know a little more about it. I was not only able to learn more about the species itself but also the immense threats these majestic creatures face in this day and age. Ever since I encountered that sawfish, I decided to work on conserving them.
Sawfishes are one of the largest marine fishes, that were once found in abundance have now declined drastically due to overfishing, entanglement in fishing nets and habitat degradation, and are now possibly one of the most threatened group of marine fish. The species that is most frequently spotted in Pakistan is commonly known as large-tooth sawfish (Pristis pristis). It is listed as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and is the only elasmobranch that is included in Appendix I of CITES. According to WWF-Pakistan, there have been at least five incidents of capture of large-tooth sawfish from Pakistan in the last three decades. According to Moazzam Khan, the technical advisor on marine fisheries at WWF-Pakistan, there was once a considerably large sawfish fishery in Pakistan and they were mainly found in Miani Hor (Sonmiani), Kalmat Khor, Jiwani, Gwadar and along the entire Indus Delta areas, particularly in Khajar Creek.
At WWF-Pakistan, I am given the opportunity to work towards the conservation of Sawfishes alongside highly experienced marine biologists. WWF-Pakistan is currently working with various organizations and universities all around the world on several conservation projects and Sawfish Conservation Project is one of them. In collaboration with James Cook University, WWF-Pakistan is conducting environmental DNA (eDNA) studies in the areas where presence of sawfish is predicted. The environmental DNA is the DNA which an organism leaves behind as it moves through an environment which could be detected using modern techniques to confirm their presence. Using the eDNA toolkits provided by James Cook University, we collected water samples from three locations in Gwadar, Balochistan, where sawfishes were recently spotted by the local fishermen and WWF was informed about their presence. The samples collected will be taken back to Australia where they will be tested to see if traces of sawfish’s eDNA are present at the locations sampled. Once the hotspots for sawfishes are identified, management strategies will be put in place and conservation measures will be taken to protect these species in the near future.
My recent field trip to Gwadar was certainly one of my best experiences so far at WWF-Pakistan. Not having lived in Pakistan a lot, I wasn’t able to travel and discover this country much until now. Being a part of this project, I got to travel and explore extremely beautiful destinations in Pakistan with rugged mountains as well as pristine beaches. The 10-hour road trip to Gwadar left me speechless as we drove through mountains making frequent stops at beaches that stretch for miles, where all you see is beauty in all its glory. As we reached our destination, we experienced great hospitality by the local community. The trip wasn’t just about the project, I also got to experience a different culture in a very unique way.
Ever since I joined WWF-Pakistan, every day has been an adventure, filled with fun and opportunities to learn. I am given the opportunity to work side by side and learn from highly experienced and skilled marine team and have gained some valuable field experience that will serve as an asset in my career as a future marine biologist. I have always known the organization is filled with people showing immense talent, but my colleagues continue to surprise me about how much knowledge and experience they have to offer.
Areeba Moiz is an intern at WWF-Pakistan’s Karachi office.