Chinese Boom in Captive Cetaceans
Trainers with bottlenose dolphins, Hong Kong Ocean Park
China is undergoing a boom in ocean theme parks with 39 in operation and a further 14 under construction with nearly 500 cetaceans being held in captivity.
A report by the China Cetacean Alliance is calling on the parks to be shut and the animals returned to the wild. It says: ‘Many of these individual animals have undergone periods of severe stress as they are chased, captured, removed from their family groups and transported over long distances to be placed into restrictive environments.’
Attendance at the 30 remaining marine parks in the US is falling with the plight of orcas being held by Sea World highlighted in recent campaigns. The last theme park with captive cetaceans in the UK closed in the 1980s. However, there is a boom for such parks in the Far East.
Chimelong Ocean Kingdom in Zhuhai, close to Macao, is the largest in China and last year recorded 80,000 visitors on one day alone. It is the flagship of a rapidly growing industry.
The report by the China Cetacean Alliance, a coalition of international animal protection groups, says China’s parks house a total of 491 cetaceans, including 279 bottlenose dolphins and 114 belugas, as well as seven orcas held in breach of CITES (an international treaty drawn up in 1973 to protect wildlife against overexploitation) regulations.
Most of those animals were caught in the waters of Russia, Japan and the Solomon Islands, by methods that are ‘known to cause stress and fear in free-ranging individuals,’ the report said. ‘Such captures also disrupt normal social groups,’ it said, adding that for some species the disruption is ‘definitely contributing to population decline.’
In captivity, the report says, many animals are likely to be living in conditions that are ‘inadequate to meet the complex physical and behavioural needs of cetaceans.’ Belugas, or white whales, are listed as ‘near threatened’ under CITES. Virtually all the belugas in China are imported from Russia, where the population is falling, the CCA said, at a reported price of $125,000 to $240,000 each.
Intensely social animals, belugas can swim up to 100 miles a day in the wild and routinely dive 30 to 1,000 feet in arctic and subarctic waters. In captivity, they circle back and forth in shallow, featureless tanks and are taught to perform tricks that conflict with their natural behaviours.
The report calls on a full investigation into the holding of cetaceans in China. It recommends that the Chinese authorities: ‘Prepare plans to phase out the display of captive cetaceans at ocean theme parks by prohibiting captive breeding; prohibiting the import of further cetaceans; prohibiting the development of new ocean theme parks and prohibiting the expansion of existing ocean theme parks, except where this is required to drastically improve the health and welfare of existing cetacean residents. Where appropriate and available, work with existing ocean theme parks to transfer captive cetaceans to rehabilitation, retirement and/or release programmes that comply with IUCN release guidelines.’