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Bangladeshi biologist Alifa Haque is helping to study and preserve a mysterious and rare ray called the sawfish, but to do so, she must convince coastal communities that these irreplaceable animals are more valuable alive than dead. 

Haque, who is a National Geographic Explorer and Edge of Existence fellow, says that before the 1990s, they were a regular by-catch in the Bay of Bengal off Bangladesh when tangled in nets, but now a belief that their flesh can cure cancer is driving their rarity.

“Each kilogram of meat can fetch 40 to 50 US dollars, which is a fortune considering that they could weigh as much as 1000 kilograms, which is big, when even a monthly wage of only 30-40 US dollars isn’t guaranteed in these communities, ” she says adding that a fisher who has problems at home would find it very tempting not to release the fish alive. 

In addition to the flesh, the giant saw-like rostrum of the fish is often sold as a souvenir. Haque says that about 5 years ago, she visited a fisheries processing center in Bangladesh and got a big surprise.

“We were showing the head of the facility our photographs of rare sharks,” she says, “and all of a sudden, he went back and came out with a sawfish rostrum (the “saw” that gives these sharks their name) that was as tall as me!”

Haque says that being at the tip of the Bay of Bengal, the coastal waters of Bangladesh are extremely bio-diverse but there is still a huge amount that isn’t known about how many species are there or the health of their populations.

“We documented more than 15 species of sharks and rays for the first time in Bangladesh,” she says, “It wasn’t that they weren’t there before, it was that they hadn’t been looked for.

For Haque, that was a huge clue that these critically endangered fish were still around.

“In just 15 months, we collected 40 landings of mostly largetooth sawfish,” she says, adding that this means there is probably still a breeding population in the shallow coastal waters of Bangladesh.

She now works to exchange sawfish knowledge between scientists and communities.

“One of the ideas that came out of the community was to get the most respected doctor in each community to debunk the ‘cancer cure’ myth,” adding that if sawfish go extinct, there’s nothing closely related to it replace it in the ecosystem. 

Big City to Big Fish

Haque says that her passion for sawfish came relatively late in life compared to other conservationists, as she was brought up in the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka, a city of over 20 million people.

“It’s a totally urban setting,” she says, “You wouldn’t see any trees, any nature and to be honest, I never thought I would become a biologist or a zoologist.” 

But once she started her undergraduate degree in zoology, she was hooked.

“That’s where it all started, there’s a whole different world that we were not exposed to before, ” she said.  

Haque would go on to study her Masters degree at Oxford University before returning to Bangladesh and being surprised at the number of sharks and rays being landed by fisherman on the Bay of Bengal.

Keep at it

Haque says that being a female marine biologist in Bangladesh has its challenges, including the cultural belief in some parts of the coast that it is bad luck having a woman on board a fishing vessel.

“But, I never felt insecure in these communities, they were very friendly and after two years they actually asked me to board their boat,” she says.

Haque’s message to women and girls interested in a life of science is to “keep at it.”

“Don’t let people say things that don’t help you, learn to tell between a criticism that can help you or one that won’t,” she says.

“There’s so much to do, so many unanswered questions and it is so much fun,” she says, adding that there’s a need for more women to get involved in field biology, especially in Bangladesh.

“There’s always a narrative difference between what a man and woman see in the world and we need to have a fuller vision of what is out there,” she said.  

Haque says that being a National Geographic explorer has helped her to connect with researchers from all over the world.

“In 2019, we had this festival in Singapore where they invited lots of other explorers tackling with similar problems,” she said, “Those relationships are precious and we still discuss challenges among ourselves.” 

Another young woman in STEM making a difference for the conservation of sharks is Anna Oposa, co-founder of conservation NGO Save Philipines Seas, which aims to conserve and restore coastal and marine resources via environmental education and community-based projects.

She’s received 50,000 Euros to establish a shark sanctuary and to do additional stakeholder consultations, data collection, develop the management plan and an ordinance to establish the marine protected area network.

During the abolitionist movement of the 19th century, journalists were among those leading the charge to eradicate slavery. Two centuries later, they’re continuing to inspire change, with leaders at the Boston University Center for Antiracist Research and the Boston Globe teaming up to apply the same pressure to ongoing racial injustice. 

The result: The Emancipator, a platform cofounded by author, historian and Boston University Center for Antiracist Research director Ibram X. Kendi and Boston Globe editorial page editor Bina Venkataraman that will spotlight antiracism practices through the multimedia work of journalists, historians and scholars. Content will include written stories, research, and interactive events like roundtables. 

The idea for the initiative came to the cofounders in June, when, after discovering their shared interest in Boston-based 19th-century anti-slavery publications, they started wondering, “could we create a publication, a megaphone for leading thinkers, ideas and debates about bringing about a racially just society, in the same way that those abolitionists created a megaphone for thinkers who wanted to bring about the end of slavery?” says Venkataraman.

“In many ways, I have married scholarship and journalism in my own work, and what it’s allowed for is the ability to have the research techniques and methods and methodology combined with writing in a way that’s accessible for everyday people,” Kendi adds. “Putting both together under the same roof with [the Emancipator], I think it’s going to be quite effective. Quite impactful.”

Though the platform doesn’t officially launch until later this year, the cofounders are already establishing a team (they’re currently hiring for two Boston-based co-editor-in-chiefs) and finalizing details. They’ve decided, for example, that all content will be free to the public. “We really believe that in order to move our society forward in this really ambitious way, we should be reaching as many people as possible,” says Venkataraman. 

The team has also recruited an advisory board of journalists and scholars including the New York Times Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones, Harvard historian and author Annette Gordon-Reed, journalist and immigration rights activist Jose Antonio Vargas and The 19th CEO and editor-in-chief Emily Ramshaw. Members of the founding team also include Dr. Monica Wang, associate director of narrative for the Boston University Center for Antiracist Research, and Kimberly Atkins, Boston Globe columnist and MSNBC contributor.

Joining the effort is a full-circle moment for Atkins, whose first journalism job was at the Boston Globe. Atkins will serve as the Emancipator’s lead columnist and will author its biweekly newsletter, Unbound.

“This will be something more than simply a news organization…it’s something bigger,” says Atkins. “I’ve been asked a lot over the last year, ‘What can I do? How can I help? How can I understand?’ And there’s no easy answer to that…a lot of that understanding needs to be grounded in research, it needs to be grounded in study and analysis. I can direct people [to the Emancipator] and say, ‘If you want to understand more, this is a place to start.’”

Kendi hopes to grow the Emancipator into “the premiere vehicle for sort of data-driven, research-based, evidence-based journalism and scholarship and opinion on the most important racial issues of our time.” 

“If we can get to a time in which we could say that we’ve abolished racism, people will look back on the Emancipator and see that this multimedia platform was critical in that work, just like when we reflect on the movement against slavery in the 19th century,” he says.