Ocean Park under fire over whale exhibit

PUBLISHED : Monday, 06 September, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 06 September, 2010, 12:00am

An international conservationist has criticised a possible plan by Ocean Park to capture endangered species from Russian waters, saying it should not build exhibits for animals before research is completed.

Naomi Rose, a senior scientist with the Humane Society International, an animal protection organisation, said she would draw conservation watchdogs' attention to research on beluga whales in the Okhotsk Sea, which Ocean Park is funding. The marine mammologist petitioned the park against capturing wild animals for its redevelopment plan in 2005.

Construction of the new exhibit is under way and the future home of the whales, named the Polar Adventure Zone, is scheduled to open in mid-2012.

The theme park confirmed that it had been funding Russian research on beluga whales in the Okhotsk Sea since 2007 to support possible wildlife capture if it could not borrow the species from other zoos. The park said a two-year search in the industry found few belugas under human care that were surplus to requirements.

'We will continue to discuss opportunities for breeding loans as the first means for acquisition, but we must be prepared that some ... belugas may come from a non-detrimental take from a sustainable population,' a park spokeswoman said.

The belugas, which are toothed, vocal whales that live in Arctic waters, are classified as 'near-threatened' on the International Union for Conservation of Nature red list of threatened species. There is substantial uncertainty about numbers of belugas in the Russian Arctic.

Although the exporting country would have to provide a 'non-detrimental finding' to support wildlife captures and trade in belugas - a listed species under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora - the treaty does not have review mechanisms to determine the validity of the finding.

Asked who was conducting the beluga studies and how long it would take, the theme park said only that 'a Russian beluga expert' was in charge and working with Canadian and American scientists, without giving names. She added that the GREMM Institute of Canada, a whale research body, was monitoring as an observer. The park declined to disclose any study findings, saying it would say more when more information was available.

The import of beluga whales is becoming a new rallying point for conservationists, after the park halted a controversial plan to sponsor a government survey and import bottlenose dolphins from the Solomon Islands.

Rose, who met Ocean Park management last week, said she was concerned about whether the park could support wildlife capture, given it had only studied the species for a few years and the polar display was opening in less than two years.

'The Okhotsk Sea is remote and it is difficult to be up there. It will be at least two to seven more years before they understand how these animals are organised into stocks,' she said.

She said that even if a large number of species were found in the sea it did not mean they were interbreeding. 'Are they removing 10 animals from a big population, or is there just one stock they are depleting? You take all of your dolphins from one spot along the coast and you might be taking 10 from a population of 100. That's 10 per cent.'

She said each beluga would cost about US$250,000 to export.

'It's reasonable Ocean Park is investing in research. But by building this million-dollar exhibit before they complete the research in Russia, they're biasing the research results. Obviously there is going to be a very strong incentive on everybody's part to come to the conclusion some numbers are safe to remove,' she said. It was not desirable to go into the wild to capture, as it could increase mortality rates, she said. At least half of the 10 belugas obtained by Taiwan's national aquarium in the past several years had died because they could not adapt.

Rose said she would ask the IUCN and International Whaling Commission to express concern about the Ocean Park project.

Dr Samuel Hung Ka-yiu, chairman of the Hong Kong Dolphin Conservation Society, said he was concerned that the import of belugas would become a fait accompli. 'What if the study results turn out to be unfavourable? Will the park leave the facility empty?'

Apart from belugas, the park has also released little information about the rest of its animal acquisition plan since it announced its explansion plans in 2005. The entire acquisition plan had already cost taxpayers HK$160 million, a fund approved by the Legislative Council that year.

Asked to give an updated list of new animals to be introduced, the park said only that there would now be 55 new species of birds, fish, sharks, mammals, reptiles, amphibians and invertebrates, and 25 of them had not yet been acquired 'due to timing of exhibits'.

It did not name any of the species.

The park has told an advisory committee on endangered species under the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department that it would import two walruses, another little-studied Arctic species, but did not specify from where it would obtain them.

Professor Chu Lee-man, a committee member and biologist with the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said the department and Ocean Park should release more information about the endangered species it sought.

'The general public in Hong Kong tends to think it's entertaining to see rare animals. They are not aware of the animals' original habitat and whether the acquisition process is humane,' Chu said.

Another committee member said the park had not reported any of its findings from studies of the animal species it wanted.

'Do we actually need to have so many exotic species? Why can't we learn more about the local plants and animals, things we live with but often neglect?' the member asked.