By Michelle Helou
Last year SeaWorld agreed to end orca breeding. Many countries have gone a step further and banned orca captivity entirely. But in China, the use of animals in entertainment is sadly booming.
China currently holds more than 500 captive cetaceans, and with SeaWorld set to expand into Asia, this number is likely to increase.
According to a 2015 report, China has imported 300 bottlenose dolphins, 114 beluga whales, and 7 orcas, along with numerous other types of dolphins and whales. According to government records and China’s Cetacean Alliance investigation, the country holds approximately 500 marine mammals in captivity.
In 2015, there were 39 marine parks in China. Today there are 44 parks, with 19 more scheduled to open. The fact that attendance at these parks is constantly increasing drives company owners to open more and more parks in order to increase profit. Consequently, the incentive for hunters to capture animals from the wild also increases.
Recently Welwitschia Aquatic and Wildlife Scientific Research, a registered Namibian company owned and operated by Chinese business proprietors, made a proposal to the Namibian government to buy marine wildlife. The proposal was for approximately of AUD$125,000 (300 million Nigerian dollars), and was to include:
- 10 orcas
- 500 to 1,000 cape fur seals,
- 50 to 100 Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins
- 50 to 100 common bottlenose dolphins
- 300 to 500 African penguins
- And whatever sharks they could get their hands on.
The Namibian minister spoke about the proposal and declared the Ministry was contemplating a decision. However, following huge public outcry, the company thankfully declared they will no longer pursue approval of the order.
If the order did go ahead, it’s very likely the captured marine life would have been sent to live in sub-standard conditions.
For example, compared to the United Kingdom and Brazil where the minimum water volume required for the common bottlenose dolphin is 1600m3, China’s standard is just 509m3. And the minimum water volume required for orca in the UK is 12000m3, as opposed to just 7393m3 in China.
This is why it’s particularly concerning that earlier this year one of China’s biggest amusement park operators opened the first orca breeding centre. The centre currently keeps nine whales: five males and four females. These whales were originally captured from the wild in Russia’s Sea of Okhotsk.
The park has made an announcement claiming the breeding centre aims to “help cultivate the public’s awareness of whale protection, develop related studies, and progress toward killer-whale breeding.” However, the orcas are trained to perform “unnatural behaviours and encouraged to have close-contact with people for photo opportunities”.
Furthermore, specialists are worried about the orcas breeding. As all whales came from the same sea, they could potentially be related and breeding them could result in genetic defects.
While the impact of the documentary Blackfish is being keenly felt by most marine parks, it doesn’t seem to be having much effect in China. Taison Chang, chairman of the Hong Kong Dolphin Conservation Society, has stated, “Today a lot of Chinese people are still very interested in the whole idea of seeing animals in captivity.”
Malls, restaurants and other venues have been increasingly featuring animals in order to attract more customers. For example, a polar bear named Pizza was displayed in a shopping mall in southern China. He lived in a small enclosure with air conditioning and synthetic iceberg panels.
While China has no federal animal welfare laws, a draft bill protecting animal welfare is currently in circulation. This is at least some small solace for the thousands of animals currently held in captivity across the country.
If you want to help address this problem, please write a polite but firm email to China National Tourism Administration – [email protected] – asking them to support a ban on dolphin and whale captivity.