During my visit to India last November to announce the launch of our affiliate there, our delegation’s itinerary included a stop at a government-run sanctuary for lions and tigers once living as circus animals. The nation had, more than a decade ago, banned the use of big cats, bears and monkeys in all performances, including circuses. The nation also invested resources in allowing them to live out their remaining years in peace and safety. India has again shown the way forward on captive wildlife issues – in this case by passing national standards to outlaw dolphinariums.
In 1998, the city of Chennai opened a dolphinarium, with four dolphins conscripted to perform for tourists. But every one of these marine mammals died in short order, due to inadequate care and unsuitable enclosure design.
Despite this tragedy, the state governments of Chandigarh, Goa, Kerala, and Maharashtra worked with various foreign investors to develop business proposals for new dolphinariums.
Humane Society International (prior to the establishment of our India office) and other domestic and international animal organizations fought these proposals. More recently, with direct input from our staff and working with well-placed local animal groups, the Animal Welfare Board of India (a statutory governmental body) issued an advisory earlier this year urging state governments not to permit the establishment of dolphinariums.
Now, only a few months later, the central Ministry of Environment and Forests has issued a directive prohibiting dolphinariums in India, citing the existing Wildlife (Protection) Act of 1972. Perhaps even more significant, the MoEF’s directive acknowledges research supporting the view that dolphins are “non-human persons.”
The number of dolphinariums is declining in the developed world. Documentaries such as “The Cove,” “Fall from Freedom,” and “Blackfish,” and books such as “Death at SeaWorld,” by David Kirby, are shifting the debate. In the developing world, however, the situation is moving in the opposite direction. There is no good census of whales and dolphins in captivity world-wide, but the best guess places the total at 1,500 or so.
We are working hard to arrest the expansion of Chinese dolphinariums, as many of the new facilities are acquiring whales and dolphins directly from the wild. The capture operations China is drawing upon – dolphins from the Solomon Islands, and beluga whales from Russia – are likely unsustainable, as well as inhumane. Solomon Islands is under scrutiny at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species for its captures and exports of bottlenose dolphins, while Russia’s beluga trade is causing considerable controversy in the U.S., where the Georgia Aquarium is asking for an import permit for 18 belugas.
Nations with maritime industries should invest in responsible whale and dolphin watching activities, rather than capture and captivity programs. There’s more economic activity and benefit to be had in the long run, and vastly more consumers interested in that kind of humane economic enterprise.