It was a golden opportunity to learn more about a rare and secretive shark species that had never been found before in the UK.
But within hours of the smalltoothed sand tiger shark washing up dead on a beach in Hampshire, its head, tail and fin were butchered under the cover of darkness and whisked away by apparent trophy hunters. With them went vital scientific information.
Conservationists are now pleading for the return of the remains of the 6ft sand tiger shark, which was discovered by locals on Lepe beach in Hampshire on Saturday morning.
The species, whose range in the Northeast Atlantic normally only reaches the top of the Bay of Biscay, is classified as vulnerable and rarely observed.
Its head and eyes are of particular interest to scientists, who can use them to track where this shark has come from, and add to sparse information about the distribution of the species.
Photos and footage of the creature were widely shared on social media soon after its body turned up, including by TV historian Dan Snow, who was asked to help preserve it.
But the head, tail and fin were removed before Mr Snow could assemble a team of people that could rescue the shark carcass. In a video post on social media, Mr Snow made an appeal for the temporary return of the head and fins of this “once-in-a-lifetime find” for scientists to investigate.
“A team of local volunteers has gone down to get the shark from the beach but we didn't get there soon enough,” he said. “We have recovered a good chunk of it but some trophy hunters got there just before us. He added: “If anybody in the local area has got the head - you can keep the head, there's no law against that - but can you let the scientists have a look at it first.”
The rest of the body will be collected by the Zoological Society of London on Tuesday for study. The Shark Trust, a charity, said it may never be possible to know the “exceptional” circumstances that led the shark to the coast of Hampshire, but an autopsy on the carcass could provide vital clues.
“Animals on land, sea and air can stray from their ‘normal’ distribution, becoming vagrants often 100s of miles off their usual routes,” said Ali Hood, the director of conservation. “Receiving reports of these vagrants is both fascinating and vital, key to noting potential changes in distribution over time.”
“This sighting may have been a vagrant, but by maintaining records of occasional finds new patterns may start to emerge – making all records important.”
The shark was first spotted alive on Friday in the shallows of the beach and pulled out to deeper waters by a local resident, 38-year-old Alisha Openshaw, who said she hoped to save the creature.
"I was heading to the beach for a walk, my mum was already there, so I took the kids for a nice walk,” Ms Openshaw, from Dibden Purlieu, Hants, said. “There were a couple of people down there, and they saw the shark splashing. He was splashing around the water around the start, and I got worried that nobody was going to help him.
"At first I wasn’t sure what it could be, but once I got there I could definitely see it was a shark. It must have been there for a good two hours, and I just can’t believe nobody tried to help him. I don’t want any animal to suffer, I can’t even kill a fly myself, and I know I just wanted to save him.”
Smalltooth sand tiger sharks, or Odontaspis ferox, are a species of mackerel shark that reach maximum lengths of around 3.67 metres (12ft) and weights of about 289 kg (45 stones 7lbs).
The sharks are usually found in deepwater rocky habitats but occasionally enter shallow water and feed on small bony fishes, squids and crustaceans.
They are listed as vulnerable on the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species and produce just two pups every two years.
The species is believed to have declined by around 80 per cent in European waters in the last 60 years, largely blamed on overfishing.
The sharks have been known to be docile around humans, even divers at close range.
Populations of smalltoothed sand tiger sharks are believed to have declined as a result of human activity. In 2022, an 11ft smalltoothed sand tiger shark washed up on the coast of Galicia in northwestern Spain for the first time.
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