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My name is Saoirse and I’ve just spent eight months living in the small fishing town of Tofo, Mozambique where the headquarters of the Marine Megafauna Foundation (MMF) are based.

I joined MMF to work as a research assistant and to collaborate on a project focusing on leopard/zebra sharks (Stegostoma fasciatum). Leopard sharks were recently classified as endangered and there is little known about their populations in Africa, making this project increasingly time sensitive.

The data collected will be used to form my thesis for my Masters degree at Swansea University. In the grander scheme, I hope this data can help aid protection of leopard sharks and other shark species in the area.

Saoirse taking a picture of Leopard shark

Here I am taking a picture of ‘Leo’ the leopard shark. The pattern of spots on the leopard sharks side are unique to each individual. I will be using ID photographs collected by divers to determine key hotspots for leopard sharks in the Mozambican channel and the connectivity between these hotspots

Mozambique remains one of the poorest countries in the world with the 6th lowest GDP per capita in 2017; most coastal communities depend upon fishing and tourism for income.

As global fish stocks decline, generating income through eco-tourism is becoming increasingly important. Fortunately, the marine life in Mozambique is simply phenomenal and has ample opportunity to sustain coastal communities through well managed tourism.

During my stay in Tofo, I was lucky enough to get an insight into the conservation, education and alternative livelihood projects MMF are conducting with local communities.

Although MMF predominately research whale sharks and manta rays, they have also been collecting data on a range of other environmental variables and megafauna species over the years including leopard sharks (which is where my luck came in!).

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MMF collects data on a range of environmental variables and megafauna species, including leopard sharks

Leopard sharks are a divers delight, their chilled out nature and charismatic appearance reminds me of a snoozing hippie high on life but as soon as you see them move through the water they somehow transform to have the grace and elegance of a ballerina.

I am absolutely hooked and the more I learn about them the more interesting they become! Leopard sharks are considered an important species for marine eco-tourism but unfortunately both bycatch and the shark fin industry pose major threats with many local populations in Indonesia already considered extinct.

Citizen science comes to the rescue

To help preserve these beautiful species, I am launching a citizen science project called ‘ID the leopard shark'. The project aims to shed light on populations of leopard sharks in the Mozambican channel and relies on scuba divers reporting sightings and photographs of leopard sharks in Mozambique, Madagascar and South Africa.

Studies on leopard sharks in Australia and Thailand have shown that they aggregate in key areas, this is concerning as destructive fishing methods in these areas can potentially detriment the entire population.

ID the leopard shark will help show where the key habitats are, their movements between these key areas and I will also be investigating the impacts of small scale fisheries at these key sites. This information is vital for leopard sharks to receive the protection they deserve.

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I need the help of fellow citizen scientists to make this project a success - fortunately taking and sharing ID photos is very easy to do...

How can I help?

I need the help of fellow citizen scientists to make this project a success, fortunately it’s very easy to do…

  • Follow and share the Facebook page and Twitter page (search “IDtheLeopardShark”)
  • Report any new or historic sightings of leopard sharks in Mozambique, Madagascar or South Africa
  • Submit any pictures you have taken of leopard sharks

Thanks to everyone who has helped support the project so far, your advice and contributions are the backbone to this project.

For now, I’m back at Swansea University preparing for my next fieldwork trip to Mozambique and South Africa in February 2018, I can’t wait. Happy diving to all and I look forward to hearing from you.

Saoirse Pottie