Hope for the wild

May 16, 2013, 09:44 IST | Asha Mahadevan

The Union Environment Ministry's stand that it will not allow marine animals to be in captive environments has re-ignited the debate about whether there is a need for oceanariums such as the one coming up in Malvan

The Federation of Indian Animal Protection Organisations (FIAPO) is stepping up its campaign to ensure that a formal legislation is put in place, to stop projects that involve marine animals in captivity from being established in the country. The organisation, which is an umbrella body for 51 animal protection organisations, has been working closely with the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests, and sources within the Ministry have suggested to the activists that the Ministry supports their stand on this issue. The FIAPO’s campaign got a boost recently when Union Minister for Environment and Forests, Jayanthi Natarajan stated in an interview to a newspaper that her ministry will not grant permission for dophinariums to be set up. Arpan Sharma, Director– External Relations, FIAPO said, “We are now taking the campaign a step forward, and working for a formal notification to be brought into force that will stop dolphinariums from being established.”

Maharashtra is one of the six states in the country to have put forth proposals for projects dealing with showcasing marine animals in a captive environment. Dr Jagdish Patil, Managing Director, Maharashtra Tourism Development Corporation (MTDC) insists the project is not just a dolphinarium but an “oceanarium-based theme park” which will be situated in the region between Waingani and Tondavli near Malvan Taluka. “We have finalised an area of 1,300 plus acres of land adjacent to the sea. We will have almost every species under the sea – from Antarctica to tropical waters,” said Patil. “The eco feasibility report has been approved. Right now, we are working on the Detailed Project Report (DPR). Once that is ready, we will approach the concerned authorities, such as the Central Zoo Authority (CZA) and the Union Ministry of Environment for approval.”

Quizzed on which species will be at the oceanarium, and if it will have dolphins, Patil said, “Penguins is one of the species, but I can’t really say if a particular species will be there because it depends on the permission we get. Whichever species is allowed by the CZA, that one will be there. We won’t violate even unwritten laws.” When asked whether the Union Environment Minister’s stand will affect the project in any way, he said, “If we are not violating any law, then how will it affect the project? First, we will acquire all clearances, only then we will float global tenders.” He went on to add, “If Singapore, Hong Kong, USA and Macau can have it, then when an Indian state is doing it by following the rules, what is the problem? It will promote learning and generate employment. We’ll have resorts, hotels, a marina, a jetty and other amenities. We’ve planned trails and adventure treks. It will be a multi-activity tourism zone.”

Making a splash: A dolphin was spotted during the dolphin festival at Murud beach earlier this year. Pic/Shadab Khan

It is precisely because of these arguments that the animal activists are hoping Natarajan legislates her intentions soon. “We want to keep encouraging the minister to legislate the prohibition,” said Puja Mitra, campaign manager, FIAPO. “Our minister is so close to creating a landmark law. Once it is in the law book, then it becomes a precedent and benchmark that can stop dolphinaria from coming up in the future.” Added Sarfaraz Syed, Corporate and Government Affairs Liaison, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PeTA), “In May 2012, we personally met the Chief Minister, and he assured us that this project in Maharashtra has been stalled. (In January 2013, this reporter heard Chhagan Bhujbal, the state Tourism Minister, claim in a public function that a project, along the lines of America’s Sea World, will come up in the state.) We also wrote to Jayanthi Natarajan and we are treating her statement as a victory and are going to use this to write to state governments. The idea that such an establishment will promote tourism is wrong. When you have dolphins committing suicide in these centres, it is not going to boost tourism. Even the Animal Welfare Board of India (AWBI) made it clear in January that clearance has to be taken pre facto – before the centre is built – and not post facto.”

Explains Mitra, “The promoters always talk about generating jobs with such centres, but what jobs? Special trainers would be flown in from abroad.” 

RIP: A dolphin lies dead at Dadar Chowpatty. Pic/Satyajit Desai

Sharma called these centres “torture chambers”. He said, “Dolphinariums have a terrible track record of animal abuse, especially while catching them from the wild. Dolphins are made to perform in these places, very much like circuses. We are hopeful that the honorable minister will issue a formal notification and forever rid India of the threat of such abominations. She has shown great leadership in animal welfare in India and for the rest of the world.” As for the argument that it is an educational experience, not just entertainment, Sharma said, “Through dolphinariums, the message going out is that these majestic animals are meant for human entertainment. We are in support of nature-friendly tourism and would even encourage people to watch wild dolphins without disturbing their environment. That would be a true learning experience.” Incidentally, the MTDC encourages tourists to watch dolphins in the wild at Murud Harnai and Tarkarli.

Mitra said it is not just about dolphins but all cetaceans, including whales and porpoises. “It is illegal to catch them in Indian waters, but there is no law stopping someone from importing dolphins in place currently. The West is phasing it out because of global agitation, so the sellers are looking at India as the next market. Some proposals suggest that one living dolphin can fetch a seller USD 150,000 (approximately, R82,17,000). We shouldn’t become a market for such a trade. They are counting on the fact that people are not sensitised and so won’t speak out against it. This is not a fight of animal lovers against the government. It is about sensitising the people so that they don’t pay R500 to watch an animal being tortured. These animals are trained to perform in many facilities using a method known as ‘operant condition’ which basically means they are trained by way of inducing hunger. Why should we pay money for that? As for it serving any educational purpose, dolphins in captivity are often frustrated and have been known to cause injury to humans during interactive programmes as well as displaying repetitive behaviour brought on by the monotonous and sterile captive environment.”

Mitra is hopeful that Natarajan’s statement will result in positive laws. “Mahatma Gandhi has said, ‘The character of a nation is judged by the way it treats its animals.’ Natarajan can set a precedent for animal welfare if she legislates what she has said. It will be a great legacy that she leaves behind.”

Past mistake
Puja Mitra said, “In 1990, a Dolphin city had come up in Chennai. There were four dolphins and two sea lions imported specially for performance purposes. In a couple of weeks, all animals died and the facility had to shut down. Many proposals currently being processed talk in counterpoint to this 1990 facility.

These proposals claim that the tragedy won’t be repeated as now we have better technology. That may be true, but the biggest pool can never be as big as an ocean. The pools will only have chemicals, no marine diversity. Dolphins in captivity can get stressed out, and have been known to commit suicide.”

Sea world
It is a chain of marine mammal parks, oceanariums and animal theme parks in the United States of America. These parks include in their list of exhibits, animals such as orca, sea lion, dolphin and sharks. There are also several thrill rides, such as roller coasters named after big fish that give the people a closer look at sharks, walruses and whales. These parks are in Orlando in Florida, San Diego in California and San Antonio in Texas. It is a private enterprise owned by the Blackstone Group, which brought out an IPO in April this year. In February 2010, an experienced female trainer at Sea World Orlando was killed by a whale shortly after a lunchtime presentation. The SeaWorld Animal Rescue and Rehabilitation Programme works with local authorities to rescue animals that are threatened due to human activities, climate change or are injured or orphaned. 

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