Ecocentric

Why Are The Red Sea Sharks Stalking Humans?

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CSI Sharm el-Sheikh: What is causing the normally harmless sharks of the Red Sea to start mauling holidaymakers in Egypt?

Shark experts have this weekend converged on the popular resort to investigate a series of attacks that have killed one tourist and badly injured four others. But they have already reached consensus on a general truth—the attacks are almost certainly a result of humans disturbing the environmental balance in the area.
“It is safe to say that the situation where you have a clump distribution in attacks, occurring after another in a limited geographical distribution, is very rare indeed,” George Burgess, who heads the International Shark Attack File, told AFP, adding that the unusual behavior was probably the result of human action.

The mystery surrounds attacks by two species of shark: an oceanic whitetip and a mako. The jaw of a mako caught and killed by conservation officers matches the bite marks of a 70-year-old woman killed in a shark attack. Neither species are known for stalking and killing humans. Indeed, sharks are not normally aggressive to humans. As Michael Lemonick wrote for TIME in this 1997 cover story on shark attacks:

What most people don’t realize is that shark attacks almost never happen. In a particularly bad year, as many as 100 people may be attacked by sharks. Of those attacks, a small minority–15% at most–prove fatal. Far more people are killed by bees, poisonous snakes and elephants, as well as bathtub falls and lightning strikes. It’s much more dangerous to drive to the beach than to venture into the water once you get there.

So what changed in the past few weeks?

Mohammed Salem, director of South Sinai Conservation, told AFP that illegal feeding is the most probable cause. “We think someone accustomed the sharks to being fed and whoever did it has stopped,” Salem said. So the sharks started to look elsewhere for easy prey.

Salem added that the attacks occurred along a roughly five mile (8 km.) stretch of shore, including the busy Naama Bay, in the afternoons, suggesting the sharks had become used to being fed at around that time of day. Salem also said earlier this week that the attacks may stem from over-fishing in popular diving areas, which has forced sharks to become bolder in their hunt for prey. There have also been allegations that large cargoes of dead sheep have been dumped in the sea, after dying on route to Egypt.

Whatever the cause of the recent spate of shark attacks, they suggest a chilling lesson: if we abuse it, nature has a habit of biting back.

(Click here to read a 2001 TIME cover story on shark behavior.)

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