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July 17th, 2012
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EXCLUSIVE: Up close with sharks – Soledad and Sir Richard Branson swim with whale sharks, talk about his new fight for shark conservation

He has taken the music world by storm, set an example as a philanthropist and is a pioneer in the race to explore space. But these days, Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson is focused on a more aquatic venture: saving sharks.

In an exclusive interview with Soledad O'Brien on "Starting Point," Branson talks about his work with WildAid, an organization that focuses on addressing the human threat to wildlife. In partnering with the group, Branson's influence opens up a new world in ecotourism, dispelling myths about sharks and increasing awareness of the brutality of shark finning.

"It's the biggest fish in the ocean," Branson tells Soledad. "Just this enormous, gentle giant in the ocean. I just couldn't bear the idea that people were slaughtering them in their millions for soup. So I decided to devote quite a lot of my time and attention to it."

To demonstrate the elegance of sharks in the wild, Soledad went swimming with Branson and WildAid's Peter Knights, getting up close with whale sharks about 12 miles off the coast of Isla Mujeres in Mexico. It's the largest aggregation of whale sharks in the world – discovered just four years ago. Knights says up to 300 whale sharks come to the area every year to feed on fish eggs. It's turned into a booming business for local companies, who bring boats full of people to swim with the sharks.

"It's rapidly developed into an amazing ecotourism opportunity and as you can see, quite a major industry for local people," Knights says. "It's better because it's way more sustainable, but secondly you get to start seeing the effects of tourism and the growth of the economy as it grows locally."

"People aren't just making a living," Knights adds. "Ecotourism offers a more sustainable, often a more reliable income," Knights tells Soledad.

WildAid says 17% of all shark species are in danger of extinction from excessive shark finning, a process where the fins of sharks are cut off the animal and then the animal is thrown back into the ocean. Shark fins, used in a popular soup in China, can fetch up to $700/kg. Every year, up to 73 million sharks are used for shark fin soup.

Whale sharks in particular are ideal for tourism trips, because they’re friendly to humans, feeding only on plankton or small fish. "I hope these are shark ambassadors to tell the world we’re not all bad guys, and basically you can come and enjoy and swim with us," Knights says. "And it gets people out in nature and gives them a different understanding of sharks."

Whale shark tourism, WildAid claims, can generate up to $5 million in income a year.

"In order to keep the balance of the oceans, we must not see any species disappear," Branson says. "The way we're going about it at the moment, we could well see a number of the shark species disappear, if not all the shark species disappear. We’ve just got to stop it."

"This is simply a matter of trying to save a species that is in danger of disappearing because of a bowl of soup," Branson adds.

For more information on WildAid, visit WildAid.org. To read more about the Virgin Unite program, visit VirginUnite.com

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