Sharks bite back in teeth of the evidence

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Hong Kong has suddenly found its attention turned from fears of the impending Chinese takeover to something even more terrifying - a spate of shark attacks.

The latest attack, the third in two weeks, occurred yesterday at Clearwater Bay, an exclusive beachfront area of the city. Lifeguards pulled a 45- year-old woman out of shallow water where she had been swimming with 50 other people. Witnesses said one leg and one arm had been ripped off. She died before reaching hospital.

The attacks have confounded the politically correct view of sharks, that they are an unnecessarily victimised, environmentally friendly fish. Even Peter Benchley, author of Jaws, the man who did more than any other to besmirch the shark's reputation, has joined the revisionists. The post- modern, post-Jaws battle cry is: "Man eats more sharks than sharks eat man''.

But this argument is unlikely to find many adherents in Hong Kong just now. A middle-aged woman swimmer said she heard the victim shouting for help with her hands raised above her. The woman then disappeared. "A pool of blood spilled out in the water, which was only up to her chest," the witness said.

The death of the woman - the third shark attack victim in a fortnight - was attributed to a possible feeding frenzy by a pack of sharks. No single species yet has been named as a suspect.But many people fear the beaches are being stalked by a large, lone killer with a taste for human flesh; not too different from Mr Benchley's celebrated protagonist.

Local experts think the same shark could be responsible for this year's attacks and other fatal attacks in recent years. In June 1993, a hair salon owner was killed while swimming in the same vicinity. Two weeks later, another swimmer was killed.

Man may be ultimately responsible. Hong Kong beaches are notorious for their pollution. Garbage and sewage has been known to attract sharks. When the pollution clears, the garbage is replaced by tasty bathers.

Britain's bathers, however, have nothing to fear from the 20 or so species of sharks offshore. "They are all harmless," said Jim Ellis, who is researching sharks and rays at Swansea University.