The days of zoos putting animals solely on show for the amusement of visitors have largely gone. Environmental awareness means most parks are now dedicated to the conservation of endangered species, education and research, and consider entertainment a secondary concern. Ocean Park has stuck to its values by abandoning a plan to bring in Beluga whales caught in the wild in Russia for a new attraction. It is a decision to be applauded as much for its dedication to conservation as sending a message to other aquariums in China and elsewhere about acceptable practices.
Beluga whales are a near-threatened species, so taking up an option to bring up to six to Hong Kong for the park's new Polar Adventure attraction might seem to make sense. While research and education were the stated aims, they would surely also have boosted attendance figures. But aquariums, no matter how big or realistic they may be, are no substitute for a whale's natural environment. There is ample research showing that when plucked from the wild and put in captivity, they suffer physically and psychologically.
Aware of the controversy, Ocean Park rightly put the matter up for public discussion. Environmental groups overwhelmingly opposed the plan. Having listened to the concerns, its executives have scrapped the proposal. Given the known stresses that transportation and captivity would have caused the magnificent animals, in addition to questions about the educational value of the display for visitors, a sensible decision has been made.
The park's operations are respected and taking the whales could have set a worrying trend. But there are better ways to research and educate. A suggestion that Ocean Park use its influence to try to have the animals it had options on released back into the wild should be considered. It already sets standards for marine parks and such a move would send an even stronger message than that already made to aquariums elsewhere that are not as well regulated.