The invaluable Manta Rays and their hunt for The 30 Million Dollar Chinese Market

If there is one thing that can define humans of the 21st Century, it will be our obnoxious obsession with the ecosystem’s wilderness and our ability to manipulate it. Millennials today can find evidence of this ubiquitous practice only due to film festivals like one that is being hosted by All Living Things Environmental Film Festival. We are talking to Nitye Sood, Cinematographer of the film ‘Peng Yu Sai,’ an award-winning documentary created and presented by Indian wildlife filmmakers Malaika Vaz and him.

Nitye is an engineer by degree and a cinematographer by passion. Malaika and Nitye first started working together on their first project, a short wildlife documentary focused on tigers, and over the last few years, they’ve worked on multiple wildlife documentaries and a recent Nat Geo Wild series as well. ‘Peng Yu Sai,’ their most recent creation, is a critically acclaimed documentary on the trade of manta ray fishes in the Indian Ocean, which starts from India and ends in Hong Kong and China. The documentary covers the gruesome and hard-hitting trade that transits through multiple countries. 

Let’s dive-in!

How did you come across Manta Rays and the subsequent trade?
So there’s a story that goes behind discovering and documenting the issue of Manta Rays. Malaika found that manta rays were being killed but was aware that it wasn’t for their meat, but their high-value gills. And as we started discussing and investigating this further, we were able to follow the trade route from Andhra Pradesh to Chennai, to Myanmar and then finally to mainland China, and Hong Kong. The first cut of the documentary was shot and completed in 2018, but we really wanted to dive deeper and also get a non-profit conservation partner on board. After some considerable efforts, we were able to get the Wildlife Trust of India and WildAid onboard. 

How did the name Peng Yu Sai pop?
Peng Yu Sai is the name of the soup made from manta ray gills in China. After learning that it is the dish that manta rays are hunted for on such a large scale, we thought this could be an appropriate name for the film – so people associate the soup with the incredible ocean creatures that it’s created with. 

Gill plate as an age reduction nutrient? What was your first reaction to this question?
See, the discussion flows back to businesses pushing one product or the other into the market without realising its ecological impact. I would like to invoke the example of the shark fin trade, which was on such a large scale that it led to a decline in sharks globally. Naturally, they had to create a demand for an alternative ocean product to replace the gap in the illicit market. Because of our initial research, we knew what it was used for but what shocked us was that everyone we asked about the use of gill plates listed 10 different uses – and scientifically, it’s only detrimental to human health. Gill plates are beneficial to manta rays like they are for any other fish in the ocean. They filter all impurities, help them feed and enable them to survive in the ocean. I guess this is the logic used in the Chinese and Hong Kong household where people assume that manta rays’ size is a beneficial component and will help them greatly to purify their bodies. All of this becomes the root cause of such a high demand for Manta Ray gill plates in the markets.

After familiarising yourselves with the health hazards of consuming Manta Ray gill plates, what do you think was the potential reason to hype the trade, particularly in China?
When you research a trade like this and reach out to people to know more, only then do you find studies that prove the ill effects of consuming these gill plates. As found out in this documentary, the gill plates contain metals that are hazardous for humans. Information like this doesn’t reach ordinary consumers unless conscious efforts are made. That’s why we chose to emphasise the scientific study part so that at least the people who watch this documentary understand what gill plate consumption is doing to their bodies. Our partners at WildAid are also working on awareness campaigns in Hong Kong/China with the goal of demand reduction.

While we understand how much human intervention is already affecting the ecosystem, to the effect that Manta Rays are reaching their extinction, could you please explain their importance for the security of life on earth, especially human life?
This week, the Giant Manta Ray was listed as Endangered – as a result of fishing pressures. When we first began filming, we tried to understand how these species are directly connected to humans – but could find no direct, tangible scientific proof. But I guess, it’s crucial for us to see that wild animals don’t have to be beneficial to humans to exist on a planet that they inhabited before we did. Manta Rays have existed for millions of years and have earned their respectful space in the ecosystem, and humans don’t get to decimate their populations recklessly. Our relationship with the natural world needs some rethinking. 

How readily did the locals agree to share financial details? What level of awareness could you gauge among, say, the fishermen and the traders?
I have to mention that we met some great people to support us throughout this journey. We received local, national, and international support, and things started falling into place. While talking to the local fishing communities, we already knew that what they’re doing is just to make a living, and we can’t expect them to be ecologically conscious on an empty stomach. So on the condition of anonymity, they readily shared details on the money involved, the places to look at, and the sites to visit to move ahead in our investigation thoroughly. With the traffickers, it was a bit trickier. 

While we study the manta ray markets, what are we exactly looking at? The Chinese money or the Chinese philosophy or Indian law and order?
While we can’t rule out the Chinese way of looking at these products, it’s how the business in the seafood works really. When traders become aware that one species will become extinct, they immediately bring something new into the market to keep the business going. Of course, their source of information becomes the unverified ancient texts that can be construed in many different ways. But in Peng Yu Sai, we have documented the fact that Traditional Chinese Medicine scriptures don’t propagate manta rays gill plates as they have been said to. It’s important not to blame one community, but to figure out ways to protect species while sifting through cultural practices and new-age wildlife remedies that are revenue-driven.

Do you think what you deemed a trade loophole in Hong Kong and China could actually be a state-funded activity?
It’s tough to say for sure in both Hong Kong and China cases because no one would question the tag ‘seafood’ on the port, as we could see in the documentary. It’s a prevalent trade, and most people are not even aware of the kinds of seafood available in the market. So transporting a product like manta ray gills does not require much effort. They are an easy pass in the markets, and in such circumstances, it’s not easy to blame the government because it can be just seen as a lack of attention and nothing else. Manta Rays are listed in CITES but knowledge of the trade needs to be stepped up to facilitate more effective enforcement. 

Was the Indian government supportive of your efforts to embark on such an investigation?
We can’t say for sure as we had minimal interactions with the government bodies. We were more focused on tracking national and international routes while keeping our identities under wraps at the same time.

Are there any more such animal products that demand such kind of human attention?
I realised that Manta Rays are only one of many species – the wildlife trade decimates all kinds of wildlife and it’s often the lesser-known species that are affected most. Everything from tiger skin to ivory to tokay geckos to pangolins to endangered butterflies and so much more is taken away from our wildernesses to supply a growing demand for wildlife contraband in traditional medicine and as “luxury pets”. 

Do you think people who are working for conservation care about other smaller species that have ecological value? For example, we lose so many plants and trees due to deforestation?
Humans have a primitive way of thinking about existence and consumption, and they’ve ceased to evolve their interpretation of natural resources with time. As we increasingly begin to understand that protecting the natural world has economic benefits and not just ecological benefits – I think we’re waking up to a new paradigm where we value the natural world more. But with the current pressures that India’s wild spaces face from industrial forces – there’s a long road ahead to protect the last of our wildernesses.

What will be your call for action for viewers who are now hooked with this investigation?
We need to rally to get these species protected under India’s wildlife laws, support continued long-term scientific efforts to understand these regional populations better and work our best to ensure much better trade control of this contraband at key border zones where the trafficking happens without much attention.