A meeting with wildlife filmmaker Mike Pandey turned daily wage earner Dinesh Goswami into a selfless conservationist of Saurashtra's rich biodiversity.
Dinesh Goswami starts by talking about how he has, on certain occasions, been invited to give speeches in schools around Gujarat. “Students are so demotivated by their results and exam pressures, some of them even think of suicide. I tell them that if a fifth-pass like me can achieve so much in life, they can do so much better than me,” he says in Hindi.
This anecdote makes an impact only when one knows that Dinesh, once a school dropout, is today an esteemed, award-winning conservationist.
Dinesh is the founder of Prakruti Nature Club Kodinar, a conservation body working to protect the biodiversity in and around the Saurashtra coastline.
Dinesh (left) accompanied by Jignesh, Prakruti Nature Club’s vice president
Two decades earlier, Dinesh led an entirely different life. Born in a poor family in the Kodinar municipality, he dropped out of school early in life. “I can’t speak English very well,” he says modestly. “I used to work as a daily wage earner. In the afternoons, when others took a nap after lunch, I walked along the beach and watched fishermen bring in the day’s catch.”
Whale sharks are highly prized, and can each catch can fetch up to ₹2.5 lakh in price, says Dinesh. The largest known extant fish species, it is also believed to have healing and aphrodisiac qualities (the reason for its high demand and astronomical prices). Being from the area, Dinesh was familiar with the creatures but his journey in conservation began when filmmaker Mike Pandey arrived in the region to shoot his iconic movie Shores of Silence. Their chance meeting changed his life, says Dinesh.
“I went up to him, in my raggedy clothes, and asked if he would click a photograph of mine with a whale shark,” he recalls. “He agreed, but asked me to do something about saving the sharks. That’s how I got started. I began visiting various parts of Saurashtra from 1997, but it wasn’t until 2004 that I began my work in earnest.”
The year 2004 was a seminal one for Dinesh. He made his first daring rescue, paving the path for more rescues in forthcoming years. It was also the time when he first met Jignesh M. Gohil. “He used to work at Airtel then—he was educated, spoke well in English and gave me the support I needed,” Dinesh says. The duo has been working since, and Jignesh is now the Vice Chairman of Prakruti Nature Club.
Since those early days, the Prakruti Nature Club team has undertaken a variety of projects. Their biggest success story? Rescuing 500+ whale sharks.
A whale shark rescue in progress
The number of rescues is so staggering, that Dinesh earnestly adds the disclaimer that the numbers leave most people stunned. In 2001, commercial fishing of whale sharks was banned in keeping the with species’ rapidly declining numbers, but instances of fishing continue to appear in news reports.
Moreover, whale sharks often end up being unwittingly trapped in fishnets or stranded on land. With members and associates spread around the district, particularly among the fishing community, the Prakruti Nature Club is usually among the first to get a call if a whale shark is found trapped.
As soon as they receive a call, Dinesh and his team rush to the area. They climb into boats and start what often turns out to be a difficult journey. The waters can be rough and treacherous; the Nature Club team often has to head out deep into the waters and the sharks sometimes gets stranded far into the shores too.
Moreover, the whale shark, though a generally docile creature, is also a strong one. Dinesh admits to having been injured, though not seriously, a few times. “We have had many difficult, and sometimes very dangerous, rescues,” he says. “It was only our determination that helped us overcome the challenges.”
He shares the credit of the rescues not only with his team, but the fishing community spread along the coastline which has helped to keep the whale sharks alive at great cost to their own life. Dinesh not only helps them recover the cost of fishing nets damaged by the sharks, but also participates in projects for the development of their community.
He says, “In this region, we consider the whale sharks to symbolic of the Lord Vishnu’s avatar (reincarnation). They are very dear to us. We did a study and realized that in stopping the fishing of whale sharks, these fishermen have lost close to ₹600 crore over the years. They are now the saviours of the whale sharks.”
In addition to their exemplary work with whale shark conservation, Prakruti Nature Club also works in the area of migratory bird counting, the protection of sea turtles and other marine animals, educational projects among school students and other communities and climate change awareness initiatives.
Over the years, Prakruti Nature Club has won a number of awards and accolades for its conservation activities.
In a wonderful twist of fate, Dinesh—who once followed a filmmaker’s words—is now the subject of many a documentary and videos. “I can’t read or write very well, but a lot of people come to interview me and write good things about our work. Some of the journalists stay with us for days, see our activities and make videos too,” he says while inviting The Better India team to join a rescue mission on its next visit to Gujarat.
Invested in the ecological preservation, Dinesh is a treasure trove of data and information on the region, its people and biodiversity. Over the years, his club has received a number of volunteers and researchers who have helped him put together reports and research papers. Some of the papers have been published in foreign journals too, he informs with joy.
Modest in his account of two decades of work, Dinesh sprinkles his stories with appreciation for friends, associates and well-wishers. His only motive: To preserve the protect the natural beauty and community life of his home.