Both these are animal parts. The conch shell is the skin of the marine snail or mollusc who lives inside it and from whose body it grows. Conches eat seaweed and are so active in the sea that they are called "the jumping shellfish” To get the shell the animal has to be brutally killed.
Molluscs have been around for 500 million years. There are hundreds of varieties of these animals. Some live in the depths of the ocean, some on beaches. They are very useful as scavengers, algae and fungus grazers, active hunters.
But like most other animal groups in today's changing world, no matter where they live, the Molluscs are vulnerable to the changes man is bringing to this earth. We threaten their habitats and food supplies, the purity of the water they breathe and, through unregulated fisheries, their numbers. Some species of molluscs have become extinct because of our activities and others teeter on the brink.
The main reason conch is now almost extinct is the Hindu religion. Now tourism and fake ayurveda has added to its miseries.
The word Conch comes from the Sanskrit Shankh. In Hinduism, the Conch is the original horn trumpet, used for proclamation. Vishnu has one called Panchjanya. It is present in every Hindu temple as one of the symbols of Hinduism. A symbol of the Buddha, it is used in Tibetan Buddhism to call religious assemblies. During rituals, it is used both as a musical instrument and as a container for water or agarbattis.
All Mollusc shells including Conches are sold at all tourism centres, official government souvenir shops, outside temples. Thousands are sold to ayurvedic pharmacies that crush and grind them and use them as a calcium base and then sell these so called medicines pretending they are vegetarian with only herbs and natural minerals.
Unfortunately, this means that fishermen kill thousands of marine molluscs every day. They are collected in shallow, inshore waters by divers. Most of the killing takes place in West Bengal and Tamil Nadu. Three years ago the Ministry for Environment tried to stop this killing and declared the Conch snail a protected species under the Wildlife protection Act 1972. The Chief Minister of West Bengal, in whose constituency most of the killing takes place, came to Delhi and put a lot of pressure to have this protection withdrawn. Balu, the then Environment Minister couldn’t care less about animal or environmental protection. He promptly removed the Conch shell from the list. In the next ten years, there will be no conches left.
Queen conch shells are protected in countries like Australia and New Zealand, which means that you cannot even pick up a conch shells that you find on the beach. No trade is allowed and if the customs find tourists bringing them in, they are confiscated. Unfortunately this has not happened in India and you can purchase conch shells at local markets.
Let me introduce you to the Molluscs and the Conch. These marine animals start their lives near the shallow coasts in semi tropical and tropical waters. As they age they move to increasingly deeper waters. They come nearer the shores in winter and then move again in summer . While some molluscs can swim, most are attached or live creeping along the bottom. Some are stationary filter feeders that sift small particles of food through their gills and their nervous and muscle systems are used for opening and closing their shells and digging themselves deeper into the sand.
They have one foot and pedal it in the water to hop around .Adults are most active at night, and can travel up to 100 yards a night. They reach sexual maturity in 3-4 years and lay eggs from April to August. They can live till 25 years.
The body is divided into a head, a mouth with a toothed tongue, muscular foot, and gut hump containing the body organs. Molluscs have a blood, nervous and reproductive system, and an excretory system with kidneys and gills, which are used to extract oxygen from the water and to strain out organisms from the water or bottom mud. They have little finger like threads called cilia, which take the food to the mouth. The skin that covers all this is called the mantle and it is, like our skin, a sensory organ. It also produces the acids and ink for defence, mucus for protection.
Molluscs hatch from the egg complete with a tiny shell that is often still there as a tiny curl at the top of the adult shell. The shell provides protection from damage and predators and on land; it prevents the loss of body fluids. It is secreted by glandular cells and is calcium carbonate. Shells vary in shape size thickness, texture and shine. Marine ones are often thick and heavy while land specimens are light.
Limpets, cowries, cone shells, winkles, abalones, oysters, conches – all these are living animals. The sacred Indian Shank or Sacred Conch is a mollusc called Turbinella Pyrum. This unique mollusc is found only in the Gulf of Mannar or in the Gulf of Khambat, close to the Narmada river mouth or in the Makran Coast near Karachi. They are now a threatened species.
The slow moving nature of the conchs, their pinkish-rose shells, and their frequency in shallow waters make them an easy target for fisherman. The industry is mainly in Kolkata where the animals are killed and the shells are cut with saws by shell workers and made into bangles. Bengali Brides wear the shankha bangles. The others are sold to temple shops. Some are carved on top for tourists. West Bengal Handicrafts Development Corporation has an office in Tamil Nadu to purchase shankha shells from the pearl divers of the Gulf of Mannar. The annual turnover is about 40 lakh shells. A diver’s average daily catch is about 10 shells.
If you object to animals being sacrificed in temples, remember that every time you buy a conch you are doing the same. Every time an ayurvedic medicine lists its ingredients as shank based, it is not vegetarian. To kill molluscs to use their shells for calcium is so unnecessary when you have so many non-living calcium resources.
You make the decision with your pocket as to whether these gentle defenseless strange animals will last another 10 years or not.