Achmat Hassiem, the South African swimming sensation who lost his leg to a shark incident in 2006, is among the loudest voices championing stricter protection for sharks and rays. He attended the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in September this year in Johannesburg, where he urged parties to vote for the listing of silky and thresher sharks and mobula rays. Misconceptions and a poor public image hinder effective shark conservation, a situation that Achmat is eager to address. Approached in 2010 by the PEW Charitable Trusts to act as an advocate for shark conservation, he worked closely this year with the Manta Trust and partner organisations to mobilise (or is that mobulise?) for CITES.
Achmat lost his leg to a great white shark in Muizenberg, Cape Town. He holds an admirably positive view of his shark encounter, believing that he has been afforded many opportunities as a result of it. He went on to represent South Africa as a swimmer at the Beijing Paralympics in 2008, won a bronze medal at the London Paralympics in 2012 for the 100-metre butterfly and competed at the Rio Paralympics in September this year, just ahead of CITES CoP17.
He says the past few years have taught him much about the vital role sharks play in our oceans’ ecosystems and how important it is to ensure their continued existence in all their diversity. This makes him an enthusiastic advocate for stricter protection of vulnerable species. Standing up for sharks, he says, is his way of giving back for where his life has taken him since 2006. His swimming success has given him a platform from which to speak ‘on behalf of sharks all around the world’. Achmat has spoken at engagements globally, in more than 120 nations, to emphasise the importance of protecting sharks.
The positive result for sharks and rays at CITES comes from years of work by diverse organisations and people, but no doubt the visible and vocal work of this motivational speaker and passionate shark advocate has gone a long way to ensuring a successful outcome.