Export of Whale sharks approved

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The Taiwanese government has approved the export of two Whale sharks to the Georgia Aquarium.

The Whale sharks, which were caught in the Philippine Sea in March, are expected to arrive at the aquarium, in Atlanta, this month.

There had previously been some hesitation by the Taiwanese government to supply the aquarium with the two new sharks, following concerns over the death of one of the aquariums current specimens.

These two Whale sharks will be among the last to be exported from Taiwan, following a ban that has been put in place by the Taiwanese government on the capture of Whale sharks, due to take effect in 2008.

Georgia AquariumThe Georgia Aquarium has been housing four Whale sharks, Rhincodon typus, in the 6.2-million-US gallon 'Ocean Voyager' display tank, which houses two males and two females. The two additional sharks were expected to join those four inhabitants this year, making the number up to six - an arrangement that had been made with the Taiwanese government in 2005.

However, the death in January of one of the two males, known as Ralph, had brought the export of the two further sharks into doubt.

The two male Whale sharks were imported to the aquarium from Taiwan in June 2005, and were shortly afterwards treated with an unnamed chemical for "leeches", according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Following treatment, the two sharks stopped feeding, and subsequently had to be force-fed by staff at the aquarium.

A necropsy undertaken on Ralph had revealed inflammation of the stomach lining, and a perforated stomach " which the AJC have suggested may have been caused by the necessary force-feeding of the fish using a PVC tube.

The two female sharks, which were not exposed to the treatment when they were imported to the aquarium in 2006, do not appear to have any health problems and are feeding normally.

Legal ProtectionThe Whale shark is listed on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, and has been afforded legal protection in the Philippines since 1998. As a result, the Georgia Aquarium had to gain permission from the Taiwanese government for the export of the species.

The government were hesitant in exporting the two new Whale sharks " one of which is 15 feet, the other 16 feet, long " over concerns regarding the death of Ralph on January 11, requesting more information on the matter from the Georgia Aquarium. The AJC reported that the Georgia Aquarium had provided only a "very rough" account of the whale sharks death, and did not include details of the necropsy report.

The deputy director-general of Taiwan's Fisheries Agency, Chen Tain-Shou, told the AJC that the Taiwanese government "want to be sure the whale sharks will be healthy in Atlanta", and that provided the details of the necropsy report were made available, and the necessary paperwork is completed by the Georgia Aquarium, then there should be "no problem" in supplying the two sharks.

ApprovalThe export of the two Whale sharks has now been approved, and preparations are being made to transport the two sharks to Atlanta in June. These Whale sharks will join the three currently inhabiting the Ocean Voyager display tank.

Very little is known about whale sharks, except that they have the potential to grow in excess of 40 feet, and it is hoped that the whale sharks housed in the Georgia Aquarium will provide unique research opportunities.

Aquarium officials are hopeful that they can encourage the Whale sharks, which are classed as 'vulnerable to extinction' by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, to reproduce successfully within the aquarium.