When Ocean Park was on the verge of bringing beluga whales from the wild to Hong Kong, it looked like the only thing standing in the way was public opinion.
After all, the belugas were ready, with six already caught and held in a marine facility in Russia. The park was ready, with a tank big enough to house the whales under construction in the new Polar Adventure area. And the science was ready, with a four-year study having concluded a limited annual catch of the near-threatened species from the Okhotsk Sea was sustainable.
But the Hong Kong public, as it appeared late last month, was anything but ready. Animal-welfare groups were continuing a vigorous campaign against the import of the belugas and a coalition of groups was preparing protests outside Ocean Park unless the project was scrapped.
Ocean Park executives, sensitive to public sentiment, commissioned two major opinion polls. 'As long as you gauge the majority feeling, that should help you make your decision,' chairman Allan Zeman said on August 29 as the park announced it would not import the belugas.
Given that retreat, the survey's results - revealed for the first time in response to questions from the South China Morning Post - are surprising.
The Hong Kong public generally supported the idea of bringing the beluga whales to Hong Kong, the polling showed. And a majority opposed the efforts by animal-welfare groups to block the project.
In one survey, conducted in July by Polytechnic University's School of Hotel and Tourism Management, 63 per cent of respondents supported bringing beluga whales to Ocean Park. In the other, by the University of Hong Kong's public opinion programme, a slight majority of people opposed importing the whales. But three-fifths supported the import so long as Ocean Park worked with other world-class aquariums on animal research to study and conserve beluga whales.
'The results were overwhelmingly favourable,' said Ocean Park's director of public affairs Una Lau Yuk-min about the surveys, 'when conditioned on the basis that the collection is done from sustainable sources, that research is done to learn more about the animals in our care, and that we partner in research with other world-class aquariums or zoos.
'Public opinion was only split if the collection was unconditional, which was never our intent.'
So why - if the 'majority feeling' showed such widespread support for the import - did Ocean Park decide to abandon the beluga whales project? A formal statement issued at the time offered few clues: 'We have decided not to pursue an acquisition from the wild, even though the removal of some beluga whales has been shown to be sustainable.'
Asked about the decision, Zeman said the park had listened to 'different opinions' within the community and said: 'We decided that it just didn't make sense at this point as a responsible park.'
Although widely applauded by animal-welfare groups, the decision has been sharply criticised by others who believe Ocean Park bowed to pressure from what they see as minority interest groups whose views do not reflect the sentiment of Hong Kong's population at large.
A letter from one critic in Wednesday's South China Morning Post pointed out that the six beluga whales at the centre of the debate might now end up in an aquarium with inferior conditions, and called on the board to reverse its decision.
What is clear is that, as the surveys were conducted, there was intense debate among Ocean Park executives over whether to go ahead with the importation of whales. Less than a fortnight before Zeman announced his decision, park chief executive Tom Mehrmann fired off a robust defence of the proposed importation to a coalition of animal welfare groups.
'While we respect your point of view,' he wrote in a letter, 'we know through research that seeing living, breathing animals up close promotes a strong personal connection between the animals and the 700 million people who visit zoos and aquariums annually.
'The dedicated educators, trainers, veterinarians, and other professional staff at parks and aquariums care deeply about the whales, dolphins, and other animals with which they interact each and every day.'
Merhmann's letter referred to the opinion surveys commissioned and without revealing their results, said they would 'help guide the decisions made by Ocean Park'.
But how those results are seen is a matter of interpretation according to Sandy Macalister, executive director of the SPCA and a long-standing opponent of the beluga whales' importation. He pointed out that, viewed in a broader perspective, they actually indicate a trend away from the wild capture of marine mammals.
What stood out most, Macalister said, was the HKU survey finding that fractionally more people opposed the idea of importing beluga whales than supported it.
'Twenty years ago in Hong Kong, 95 per cent of people would have found it acceptable, and it's interesting that today, on a very quick survey, it's 50-50,' Macalister said. 'You can be sure that in 10 years' time, it would be 90 per cent against.
'Hongkongers are changing in their concern and respect for animals, and there is no doubt this will be unacceptable in future.'
In other words, the tide of history is against the wild capture of marine mammals - and the park was considering importing juvenile belugas that can live for 60 years in the wild.
'Imagine how people will feel towards that kind of thing in 40 years' time,' Macalister said. 'What do you do with them then? You certainly can't release them.
'From the animal-welfare point of view, there is no way in the world that the wild capture of beluga whales can be considered not to be cruel, no matter how high the standards of husbandry and care and the conditions in which they are kept.
'It's just a simple equation that a wild animal as intelligent as that must suffer, given the process and the end result of where it is kept for the rest of its life.'
Macalister described the decision not to import the beluga whales as 'a fantastic turning point'.
'Ocean Park is to be really admired for it,' he said. 'For a place that is renowned for business, for someone to reassess where they are after having invested so much in it and to do the right thing is tremendous.'
The decision might also have widespread implications for aquariums worldwide, he argued. 'What Ocean Park does matters,' he said. 'They are at the gateway to China and they are enormously respected and they are watched and followed by a great number of people and they are an incredible success story.
'Ocean Park is a real leader - one of the best in the world at husbandry and conditions and ethics. When you get a place like that taking a position on wild capture, it is a huge thing for the marine and aquarium industry. It is hugely important for the future of higher marine mammals.'
While Ocean Park has given no clear commitment against taking wild-capture animals in future, it has confirmed it is no longer considering the import of bottlenose dolphins from the Solomon Islands, an issue that caused controversy last year.
Macalister believes the beluga issue was the point at which an undeclared change in policy took place. 'They will not want to import wild-capture animals in future,' he said. 'It will become unacceptable in this society to do so. It is unacceptable in places like Australia already and it will become unacceptable here, too.'
Dr Samuel Hung Ka-yiu, chairman of the Hong Kong Dolphin Conservation Society, which led the campaign against importing the beluga whales, is not as convinced that Ocean Park has turned a corner in its animal-acquisition policy.
'They will continue to acquire wild animals if we are not watching them and keeping the pressure on them,' he said, pointing out that the park had only recently imported bluefin tuna and hammerhead sharks for one of its new aquariums. 'I really worry this kind of conflict will continue.'
Even switching to sourcing animals from other aquariums was not necessarily a satisfactory solution, he said.
'It can be like animal laundering. If they get a walrus from a Japanese aquarium, what happens if the Japanese aquarium, after supplying those walruses to Ocean Park, then goes out and catches some more from the wild?
'For me, it's a relief we achieved our goal and they won't bring any beluga whales to Hong Kong. At least Ocean Park is listening and that opens the door to us to collaborate in future. But if you ask me: 'Have all the problems been solved?' I would have to reply: 'By no means'. We have to monitor the situation. This isn't even a victory. It's just progress.
'They still have the dolphin show, they still have bluefin tuna and hammerhead sharks, and they are still not willing to educate people properly. But at least Allan Zeman is listening and we have a channel to take one step at a time and make progress in the right direction.
'It's not all going to change overnight. I want to make Ocean Park something I'm proud of. I think we're heading in the right direction. I am more optimistic than I was before.'
Will Ocean Park continue its search for beluga whales from other sources for its Polar Adventure attraction, which is due to open in 2012?
Lau replied in a statement: 'The park has decided to pursue other animal ambassadors and to eliminate belugas from the search process.
'The park will explore diverse approaches to convey the conservation message of climate change, while placing an educational and interpretive focus on the iconic animals we will not be displaying, such as belugas and polar bears.
'The Polar Adventure exhibit was always meant to be a multi-species habitat and we may simply look at expanding the other species presented to deliver the messages on conservation within the exhibit.'
The approximate number of beluga whales kept in captivity worldwide
- There are about 100,000 in the wild