At the All Living Things Environmental Film Festival held virtually last month, Green Oscar-nominated investigative documentary Peng Yu Sai was screened, which dives into the illegal trade of manta rays from India’s oceans. In the film, Malaika Vaz and Nitye Sood follow the illegal trade pipeline from fishing vessels in the Indian Ocean to the Indo-Myanmar border and finally in the wildlife trafficking hubs of Hong Kong and Guangzhou in China. Along the way, they meet with fishermen, middlemen, traffickers, armed forces personnel, and wildlife trade kingpins, as they try to understand what it will take to protect these ocean giants.
TV presenter and wildlife filmmaker, Vaz has created investigative films on the illegal wildlife trade and the impact of COVID-19 on vulnerable communities and hosted an eight-part Discovery Channel/Animal Planet series on endangered and lesser-known species in India. Sood, a Panda Award-nominated wildlife filmmaker and cinematographer, has worked on international broadcast productions for National Geographic, Animal Planet, Netflix and Discovery Channel. Excerpts from an interview with Sood:
How did you and Malaika discover the manta rays?
Malaika and I are both certified divers and we’ve had the privilege of diving with manta rays over the years. Sharing moments with these enigmatic creatures has inspired a sense of connection with the ocean that is truly special for us, and our experiences of spending time underwater with manta rays definitely motivated us to tell this story.
Could you give an insight into the role they play underwater and their significance?
This is a question that we grappled with while making the film. We often get caught in the trap of thinking that an animal deserves protection only if it brings some direct benefit to humans or plays a pivotal role in an ecosystem. I don’t think that’s necessarily true. Manta rays are filter feeders, which means they swim through the water, filtering out microscopic organisms called zooplankton — and they have been known to dive to great depths of up to 1,000 meters. It can be argued that they contribute to the exchange of nutrients between these deep waters and shallower waters around coral reefs, where they congregate for feeding. However, I would not want to make this the basis for why I think these animals need to be protected. We need to re-orient the way we look at other species that live on this planet and see that these animals deserve protection simply because they exist.
When did you first discover its trade in India?
Our journey into investigating this trade began when Malaika came across dead manta rays in a small fishing village in Andhra Pradesh in early 2017. She was there on a recce looking for fishing cats when someone asked her if she would like to see these ‘flat sharks’. When she went to the landing site, she realised that these were manta rays and they were being caught in significantly large numbers. Malaika and I started documenting what was happening and tried to follow the trail in terms of who were involved in the fishing and who the buyers were. We never imagined at that time that the film would span over three years.
Can you give an insight into the challenges faced while making the film?
One of the challenges was capturing the hunting of these animals out at sea. We spent several days and nights on fishing vessels with fishermen who were looking for rays and it was both scary and a great adventure. Of course, filming undercover, especially in a place like China, had its own set of challenges. We had to have a strong cover story and make sure that we did not give away our true identity.
How difficult was it to watch the mantas being caught and slaughtered?
When we initially started filming at the landing sites in Andhra Pradesh, it was extremely difficult. When the manta rays are caught and brought back to the shore, they are immediately cut up and their fins are removed for drying. It can get pretty gory and the smell of dead fish gets overwhelming. Our clothes smelled of manta rays for months afterwards. However, as we continued filming, we were engulfed by the story unfolding around us, and there is definitely some amount of desensitisation that happens over time. Though I would not want to go through it all again.
What do you hope to achieve through this film?
Manta rays are magical creatures, and yet many people do not know about them. Within our country, those that know about manta rays probably think that these are some exotic animals you may find in the Maldives or Indonesia. First and foremost, we wanted to bring manta rays to the fore through our film, and to inspire audiences to fall in love with them. We also wanted to document the trade pipeline, which is resulting in hundreds of mantas being caught along our coastline every day. The ultimate aim is to push for policy level protection for manta rays under Indian law. To that effect, Malaika has been working along with the Wildlife Trust of India and Wild Aid on a grassroots research initiative, to come up with baseline data on the number of manta rays being caught across the major coastal states, and work on a policy recommendation report.
Are they not protected by the government?
Manta rays are listed under Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which prohibits the cross-border trade in these species under international law. However, under the Indian Wildlife Protection Law, these animals are not currently listed, which means that there is no regulatory protection for these animals from being caught in Indian waters. Part of the problem is that once the animals are caught, they are easily passed off as dried seafood products and exported. Our borders, especially with Myanmar in the northeast, are porous and nobody is looking out for marine contraband which may be a needle in a haystack of other marine products that are traded regularly.
What response did your investigation receive from official authorities?
It’s important to remember that any campaign or policy recommendation is a process, and one needs to be thorough with one’s work and then go through the process. We have had meetings with stakeholders at various departments involved in regulating India’s fisheries and marine conservation laws. In general, authorities have been receptive to what we’ve had to say. We are looking forward to completing our policy recommendation document. Hopefully, we are able to bring manta rays under legal protection in India very soon.