Conservationists take World Association of Zoos and Aquariums to court for allegedly sanctioning a deal with fishermen in which dolphins were selected for capture
Oliver Milman and Justin McCurry
The world’s leading zoo organisation has been accused of being complicit in the infamous dolphin hunts in Taiji, Japan, by helping secure captured dolphins for one of its members, despite publicly condemning the practice.The World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (Waza) is being taken to a Swiss court by conservationists who accuse it of misleading conduct over its stance on the Taiji dolphin hunts, which gained global attention through the documentary The Cove.
Waza’s code of ethics labels the dolphin hunts “inherently cruel”, but it allegedly agreed a “dolphin management protocol” with Jaza in 2009 that involved a “gentler” method of herding small numbers of dolphins towards shore where they would be captured for aquariums.
At a meeting in August Waza suggested a two-year moratorium on dolphin drive hunts, but this was rejected by Jaza, Waza said. Instead, Jaza proposed – and Waza allegedly agreed – that during September no dolphins would be killed, but Jaza would get first pick of those that were rounded up, in large numbers if necessary.
After that, three other organisations – Dolphin Resort, Dolphin Base and the Taiji Town Development Public Corporation – could purchase excess animals, with the rest released. Conservationists claim conditions at these aquariums, including the 37 Jaza member aquariums that take dolphins from Taiji, are terrible.
Waza has previously said the dolphin hunts were part of a Japanese cultural tradition stretching back “centuries”, but wildlife campaigners insist records in Taiji show that the first large-scale hunts started in 1969 and have been primarily driven by the desire to capture animals for exhibit, rather than for meat.
The capture of dolphins is said to have doubled in the past 10 years. A fully trained dolphin on public display can be worth more than $100,000, compared with as little as $100 if butchered for meat. Anti-hunt campaigners say the market for captured dolphins in China is growing rapidly.
Over the past five years, observers say, more than 5,000 dolphins have been killed at Taiji, with a further 750 captured for aquariums. Since the August 2014 agreement, 751 dolphins have been killed, with 41 bottlenose dolphins captured.
The herding and slaughter of dolphins, highlighted by The Cove, has provoked outrage among animal welfare groups and some governments. In August, Caroline Kennedy, the US ambassador to Japan, caused a minor diplomatic rumpus when she tweeted that she was “deeply concerned by inhumaneness of drive hunt dolphin killing”.
During the hunts, dolphins are forced into shallow coves by boats, with fishermen banging metal pipes in the water. They are then slaughtered with knives or hoisted out of the water for capture, with buyers from aquariums picking their favoured animals to perform various tricks for audiences.
Marine scientists maintain the capture process imposes huge physiological stress upon dolphins and increases their chances of dying once they are in captivity – hence the need to constantly replenish stocks from the wild.
“I’ve observed the hunts and seen dolphins being hit by propellers, hit by boats, flung onto the rocks, they are horrific,” said Sarah Lucas, the head of Australia for Dolphins, the conservation group that has filed court action against Waza.
Lucas said the legal action, filed with the Geneva civil court, aimed to force Waza to enforce its code of ethics, or to expel Jaza.
“For Waza to present itself as an animal welfare and conservation organisation and on the other hand support a member involved in one of the cruellest practices in the world, to the extent of helping them get preferential purchasing positions, is deceptive and harmful to the efforts to put the hunts to an end,” Lucas said.
“Most zoos and aquariums around the world have no idea how Waza conducts itself behind closed doors. They will be very surprised to learn this.”
Waza has more than 20 associate members, including Jaza and the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria, as well as 300 individual zoo members, including London Zoo, the Zoological Society of San Diego, Toronto Zoo, Bronx Zoo and Melbourne Zoo.
Courtney Vail, the programs and campaigns manager at US-based Whale and Dolphin Conservation, said Waza’s actions were “beyond comprehension”.
“They seek to separate killing from acquisition, which is irrational as the methods utilised in driving and herding are the same,” she said. “Waza’s approach is not only encouraging additional hunts, it’s actually endorsing this method as a legitimate way to capture dolphins. Waza is complicit in this.”
A Japanese NGO, the Elsa Nature Conservancy, said Jaza had confirmed to it that Waza had agreed at the August meeting to the priority purchasing agreement. It said Waza also agreed that large pods, rather than the supposedly more humane smaller groups, of dolphins could be rounded up for Jaza to purchase.
The chairman of Jaza, Kazutoshi Arai, confirmed to the Guardian that Jaza had the first pick of bottlenose dolphins during September.
“We select the dolphins and the rest are released, but only during September,” he said. He acknowledged that during that month there were no limits on the size of the pods that fishermen could drive into the bay.
Arai insisted Waza did not explicitly voice an opinion on the new arrangements, or on giving Jaza and the Taiji organisations priority on procuring animals.
“Using separate drive hunts only for dolphins that will be bought by Jaza members is better, as long as everything is done to safeguard the animals’ welfare,” he said. “In this way we have responded to Waza’s requests to change the way we do things.
“The killing of dolphins in Japan is approved by the government, so that’s not Waza’s concern. Waza’s business is live capture. The two [killing and live capture] were mixed up before and that caused problems for zoos and aquariums.
“But if we separate live capture it’s much less of a problem.”
Waza officials reportedly told Jaza in October it still had not gone far enough in devising a humane way of procuring live dolphins.
In February, Jaza submitted a fresh report on its new method of live capturethat is being discussed by Waza officials. Arai said Jaza had also asked Taiji fishermen not to separate bottlenose dolphin mothers from their calves.
The executive director of Waza, Gerard Dick, said the organisation had tried to influence Jaza to phase out drive hunts.
“Waza is not in any way or form participating in the drive hunts,” he said.
“We were informed by Jaza that there is a change of catching practices planned, implying that in the month of September only bottlenose dolphins shall be taken alive by Japanese aquariums,” he said. “No lethal takes would occur during this month.
“Waza has continuously tried to influence Jaza in order to eventually phase out the acquisition of dolphins by Japanese aquariums. Waza suggested a proposal to establish a two-year moratorium but this was unfortunately not acceptable.”