Park to test water on whales
Ocean Park wants to know what you would think if a group of beluga whales was captured in the wild and brought back to Hong Kong for display in a new North Pole attraction.
The popular aquarium and theme park has commissioned an independent public opinion survey, officials said yesterday, as they consider the politically fraught decision to import the hump-headed sea mammals, which are classified by conservation groups as 'near threatened'.
Specifically, the poll would Hong Kong residents how they would feel if Ocean Park brought four or five of the animals, known also as white whales, back from Russia's far east, according to someone familiar with the acquisition plan.
The plan would be to put the animals on display along in its new Polar Adventure exhibit along with South Pole penguins recently acquired from a Japanese zoo.
Conservationists, however, dismissed the poll as an attempt to justify a decision after it has been made.
'Isn't it too late to ask the public's view?' said Dr Samuel Hung Ka-yiu, chairman of the Hong Kong Dolphin Conservation Society. 'They have already built a facility and now can't wait to fill it.'
An Ocean Park spokeswoman said the agency was still processing the survey and the park would announce the findings as soon as possible and make a decision afterwards. Redeveloped portions of the park will open next year.
A person familiar with the plan insisted the any whale capture would hinge on the outcome of the poll and the park was prepared to walk away from the idea. 'It would be difficult to go ahead with the plan without public support,' the source said.
The park says the import of the belugas - probably the most controversial of its recent intakes - could help enforce conservation efforts by giving the public the chance to see the view the animals close up.
Conservation groups assign the category 'near threatened' - below 'least concern' and above 'vulnerable' - to animals that have sufficient numbers to survive on their own or with minimum human intervention. Although beluga whales are considered 'near threatened' globally, certain North American subpopulations are considered endangered.
A population assessment sponsored by Ocean Park, which has recently been reviewed by a specialist group under the International Union for Conservation of Nature, concluded that removal of a certain number of beluga whales from the wild might be acceptable.
Park officials say they are confident risks to the animals in capture and transport would be low but are also aware of the potential for public criticism if any problems arise.
Beluga whales were just one of several animals on Ocean Park's wish list when it announced a HK$5 billion redevelopment plan in 2005. The list has since dwindled, however, with less numerous polar bears and killer whales already dropped.
Last year, the park acquired 10 rare Chinese sturgeon after several in an earlier batch took ill and died.
Officials would not say who they had hired to conduct the survey. Hung, of the dolphin conservation group, questioned any result.
'Most Hong Kong people are emotionally associated with Ocean Park,' Hung said. 'It is possible some of them might be misled to come to a conclusion favoured by the park.'
The estimated population of the beluga whale
- It can swim to a depth of 800 metres and stay below for 25 minutes