Maimed by sharks but victims fight to save them

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They have the scars and missing limbs that make it hard to forgive, but these victims are tougher than most. And now they want to save their attackers.

They are shark attack survivors, a band of nine thrown together in an unlikely mission to conserve the very creatures that ripped their flesh, shredded their limbs and nearly took their lives.

Gathered at the UN yesterday, they want nations to adopt a resolution that would require them to greatly improve protection for shark species - of which nearly a third are threatened with extinction or on the verge of being threatened.

"If a group like us can see the value in saving sharks, can't everyone?" asked Florida shark-bite victim Debbie Salamone, 44, whose Achilles tendon was severed in a 2004 attack that temporarily halted her ballroom dancing hobby.

Ms Salamone, a former journalist, initially made plans to eat shark steaks in revenge. Then, she said, she turned tragedy to something productive by joining the charitable Pew Environment Group and recruiting like-minded shark attack survivors to work for shark conversation.

"We do not have scientific management plans for how many sharks can be caught," Matt Rand, director of Global Shark Conservation for the Pew Environment Group said. "There are no limits."

Speaking with the attack survivors at a news conference held to draw attention to the world's dwindling shark population, Mr Rand said the UN and its member nations must do more to resolve the problem.

Among the group's goals is to end the practice of shark finning, which kills an estimated 73 million sharks a year. Fishermen slice off shark fins, which sell for hundreds of dollars a pound for use in soup mostly in Asian markets, but dump the animal back in the water where it drowns or bleeds to death.

Because sharks are slow growing, late to mature and produce few young, they are unable to replenish their populations as quickly as they are caught, Mr Rand said.

The survivors, aged between 21 and 55, said being in the wrong place at the wrong time needn't diminish their love for the ocean, where they enjoyed surfing, swimming and diving and knew the risks.

Former lifeguard Achmat Hassiem, 29, of Cape Town, South Africa, lost his foot when a shark attacked him during rescue practice four years ago and said he now believes certain things happen for a reason.

"My dream was to one day become a marine biologist and focus on helping and protecting Earth's aquatic life. To participate in this event is an honour," he said.

More than a decade ago, nations agreed to voluntarily produce shark management plans, but only about 40 of some 130 nations followed through.International trade restrictions are in place for only three shark species: basking, whale and white sharks.

"Do we have the right to drive any animal to the brink of extinction before any action is taken?" asked Navy diver Paul de Gelder, 33, of Sydney, Australia, who lost his right hand and right lower leg in an attack last year. "Regardless of what an animal does according to its base instincts of survival, it has its place in our world," he said. "We have an obligation to protect and maintain the natural balance of our delicate ecosystems."

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