Why Defenders of Killer Whales Are Worried About China

Late last year, the circus came to Hengqin. Trained elephants from Thailand, Russian jugglers and monkies, Kazakh horses, Bengal tigers, and Cuban acrobats descended on the once-sleepy island near Macau for China’s “First International Circus Festival,” twelve days of death-defying stunts by humans and animals. And they were only the warm-up act. The festival’s organizer, the Chimelong Group, a company that owns resorts and theme parks in southern China, hopes to turn Hengqin into “the Orlando of China.” The circus was designed to herald the opening of a new Chimelong resort which houses Ocean Kingdom, a marine theme park featuring the world’s largest aquarium. But not everyone was cheering. A Chinese environmental group called The Nature University and 31 local and international animal welfare organizations signed an open letter to China’s Minister of Culture, Cai Wu, and the Governor of Guangdong province, asking them to cancel the animal performances. In the Zhuhai train station nearby, Animals Asia, an international organization that monitors zoos and safari parks in China, displayed posters crowd-sourced through a competition, with the theme “Not Born to Perform.” “[We wanted] to let the Chimelong Group know this wasn’t something they could just get away with,” says David Neale, Animals Asia’s Animal Welfare Director. The posters stayed up for a week before the ad company pulled them down and the circus went on as planned.

But Chimelong had not seen the last of China’s animal rights activists. Just days after Ocean Kingdom opened to crowds in the tens of thousands visiting each day of China’s annual spring festival holiday, Chimelong’s CEO, Su Zhigang, received another message from the resort’s critics. This time the subject was animals that had yet to perform. In 2013, according to Russia’s Federal Agency for Fishery, Russian companies captured six killer whales (or orcas) from Russia’s Sea of Okhotsk. Leading marine mammal experts in Russia and China believe Chimelong recently purchased two of these wild-caught whales and brought them to Ocean Kingdom. Although the orcas have not yet performed at Chimelong, nor been seen in public, on February 25 a group of international animal welfare organizations including Humane Society International, Animals Asia, Earth Island Institute, and the International Fund for Animal Welfare together with more than 70 Chinese groups wrote to Su to express “deep concern with regards to the capture of killer whales, or orcas, from their natural habitat to reportedly be imported into China to provide entertainment at your Ocean Kingdom in Zhuhai.” ChinaFile has been unable to confirm that Chimelong has imported orcas, but Ocean Kingdom recently hired an experienced orca trainer from a park in the Canary Islands, according to his LinkedIn profile. If conservationists’ fears are confirmed, these will be the first two orcas in captivity in China and theirs will be the first international trade in killer whales taken from the wild since Iceland stopped allowing the capture and export of the species from its waters in 1990.

Defenders of cetaceans—the group of brainy marine mammals that includes dolphins and whales—fear that China may be poised to reverse decades of work to combat performance by these animals elsewhere in the world. For Neale, “the real worry is...precedent. I’ve been in and out of China for the past 12 years,” he says, “and the development in the marine parks is astonishing. The numbers of wild-caught dolphins and wild-caught beluga whales that are in the country now is into the hundreds. The worry that I have is that other parks will want to bring killer whales into their marine parks as well.” Like beluga whales and bottlenose dolphins, killer whales are highly intelligent and self-aware cetaceans. But with their distinctive black and white markings and staggering size, weighing up to 10 tons, these apex predators of the sea are coveted by marine parks for the spectacle they create while splashing the audience with their tails and launching human trainers out of the water from their noses. In the wild, killer whales swim up to 100 miles per day, but when confined to a concrete tank they are prone to infections and ulcers, shorter life spans than their wild brethren, and have been known to attack one another as well as their trainers. According to Erich Hoyt, co-founder of the Far East Russia Orca Project and Research Fellow with Whale and Dolphin Conservation, “There are more than 50 aquariums [in China] that exhibit cetaceans, so potentially the market [for killer whales] could be large.”

Recreational travel and animal performance often go hand in hand in China. 109 million people visited China’s theme parks in 2012 according to the 2012 Theme Index report released in June 2013 by the market research firm AECOM. The report also predicts China will surpass the U.S. in theme park visits “in the not-too-distant-future.” China’s boom in recreational and leisure travel is often held up as evidence of the coming of age of its emerging middle class, who now have the freedom and income to seek out new experiences. In a thriving domestic tourism market in which revenue grew some 15.7% last year, captive animals are a popular attraction. In Chengdu, visitors can pay six figures to experience one-on-one time with pandas, and at the Northeast Tiger Park in Changchun tourists pay to take photos of their children riding on the backs of Siberian tigers. But Chinese animal welfare groups have begun challenging the use of animals for performance at Chinese zoos and safari parks, evincing another benchmark of middle-class growth: the emergence of environmental consciousness.

Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images
Trainers with Beluga whales during a performance at the aquarium inside the Chimelong Ocean Kingdom in Zhuhai on April 29, 2014. The park, which claims to be the world’s largest ocean theme park, was built at an estimated cost of U.S.$3.3 billion and opened earlier this year.

China, with its notorious bear bile farms and staggering trade in endangered wildlife products, may not be known for championing the rights of animals. But the country now has a growing cohort of homegrown animal protection groups, and despite the odds, they have won notable victories in recent years. A coalition of 71 animal welfare groups protested a rodeo scheduled for the Olympic “bird’s nest” stadium in Beijing in 2011 which led to its cancellation. The Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development (MURHD), which regulates China’s zoos, issued a directive to end animal performances in Chinese zoos in 2010. Activists say the China Association of Zoological Gardens, under MURHD, has been particularly responsive. According to Peter Li, a professor of political science at the University of Houston and policy consultant for Humane Society International, “We have developed a collaborative relationship with the Association in the last four years. We send western zoo experts and animal welfare experts to the Zoo Directors’ Workshop in China, organized by the Zoo Association. We have sponsored zoo managers to do internships in the United States so that they can see for themselves how American zoos—of course, the accredited zoos—are being managed.” Earlier this year, the Beijing Zoo even collaborated with Animals Asia to host an exhibition of the “Not Born to Perform” poster series.

But many of the new animal performance venues most worrying to animal rights groups are not considered zoos. “Safari parks,” of which there were 34 in 2010, are governed by the State Forestry Administration (SFA), which also banned animal performances in 2010, but has not shown the same commitment to follow through according to Neale of Animals Asia. Neale says, “the SFA see[s] animals as a resource to be used for economic gain … [they] also manage bear farms and fur farms, and this is why they have not taken actions to end animal performances. In fact, such performances continue to expand within the safari parks.” Chimelong’s Su built his original Chimelong Resort in Guangzhou, which features the Xiangjiang Safari Park, an amusement and water park, a Crocodile Park whose website purports it to be home to 100,000 crocodiles, a 5-star hotel where white tigers serve as dining ambience, and a nightly circus. Says Neale, who has researched the resort, “in an arena with about 5000 people, they’ll have giraffes running around the arena, hippos in the arena, and then the usual bears, monkeys, tigers, lions, and elephants. It is a very big operation.”

So are many of China’s marine parks, which are of special concern to animal rights groups in part because they also are not regulated as zoos. Instead, they fall under the administration of the Ministry of Agriculture. The trend toward major capital investments in Chinese marine park development therefore presents a daunting obstacle to the animal welfare movement’s campaign to end animal performance. Since 2000, while Chinese activists have been fighting to end animal performance in zoos and safari parks, more than 25 new marine parks have come online. “These companies have a lot of money and a lot of clout,” says Qin Xiaona, Director of the Beijing-based NGO Capital Animal Welfare Association. Chimelong’s Su, for example, is currently a Vice Chairman of the All-China Federation of Industry and Commerce, a major chamber of commerce in China, and has held political office both in Guangdong and as a delegate to China’s National People’s Congress.

Chimelong’s Ocean Kingdom may be the newest, but it is certainly not the only theme park to employ dolphins and whales for entertainment purposes in China. Haichang Group, China’s largest marine park operator, according to FinanceAsia, raised $316 million during an IPO in Hong Kong in March of this year. It has Polar Ocean World-branded locations in Qingdao, Tianjin, Wuhan, Dalian, and Chengdu. The parks feature 30 polar animal species and performances by belugas and dolphins sourced almost entirely from the wild, according to Cetabase, an online database tracking captive marine mammals. Haichang plans to spend 90 percent of the funds raised in its IPO on two additional marine parks in Shanghai and on Hainan Island.

China’s boom in marine parks has made it the world’s largest importer of beluga whales and dolphins, which they are obtaining, respectively, from Russian waters and from the notorious cove in Taiji, Japan (whose annual dolphin slaughter was the subject of the Academy Award-winning documentary The Cove), according to trade data recorded between 2000 and 2012 by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). But so far, Chinese aquariums have yet to display the crème de la crème of any marine park collection: the killer whale. In 2010, a delegation from Hainan province visited theme parks in the U.S. and Mexico and concluded, according to the Hainan Daily, that “marine parks cannot afford to not have high quality animal performances, and they especially need high investment, high yield, spectacular programs like killer whale performances.”

The killer whales recently captured in Russia bring the worldwide total of captive killer whales to 53, according to Whale and Dolphin Conservation. The American marine park company SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment currently owns 27 killer whales. 23 live among SeaWorld’s three parks in the United States, and four others reside at Loro Parque in the Canary Islands. But acquiring killer whales from the wild is highly controversial. Even SeaWorld distances itself from this practice, stating on its website, “We haven’t collected a killer whale from the wild in 35 years.” Before the new Russian captures, only 12 of the current living captive killer whales were caught in the wild; the rest were bred in captivity. In the wild, killer whales live in small close-knit matrilineal pods with distinct dialects. Offspring stay with their mothers throughout their lives, which reach ranges similar to human lifespans. Taking killer whales from the wild breaks apart these family units and can disrupt the reproductive capability of a pod.

“In the letter we sent to the Ministry of Agriculture [and Chimelong], we try to make a strong point that killer whale performance in the United States is such a controversy ... People have lost their lives and been injured. Why do you want to repeat the mistakes of the United States?” asks Peter Li. Films like The Cove and more recently Blackfish, which tells the story of an orca named Tillikum who killed his trainer at SeaWorld Orlando in 2010, have engendered a strong anti-captivity sentiment in the United States and around the world, but international regulation of the marine mammal trade remains limited.

(CITES)—the international body that oversees the international trade of animals—classifies killer whales as Appendix II, which means they are not in threat of extinction but do require controlled trade to avoid heading in that direction. But, says Mark Berman of the International Marine Mammal Project at The Earth Island Institute, CITES has only limited ability to prevent cross-border trade in the animals. “This new traffic in orca from Russia is serious for the species as CITES has no real teeth to protect them,” he says. Because research has not been conducted on the population of killer whales living in the Sea of Okhotsk, “if more killer whales are taken in coming years, we risk the elimination of entire pods and compromising breeding units with unknown effects,” says Hoyt, who has seen this happen to the now endangered Southern Resident population of killer whales in the Pacific Northwest’s Salish Sea where killer whale captivity began. Between 1964 and 1973, Ted Griffin, owner of a Seattle aquarium, and Don Goldsberry captured 45 killer whales from the region’s Southern Resident killer whale population, 11 of which were killed in the process, according to research by the Center for Whale Research, which has surveyed the Southern Resident population for 37 years. Of the whales taken from the Southern Resident population, only one—Lolita, at the Miami Seaquarium—remains alive in captivity today. While back in the Salish Sea, the elder relative of the captured whales, the 103-year-old “Granny,” continues to thrive in the wild.

Not until the United States passed the Marine Mammal Protection Act in 1972 did the capture of killer whales end in U.S. waters. “If you remove young females consistently from the same groups,” Hoyt says, “you will effectively make it very difficult for them to recover. This is what we saw in Puget Sound and off southern Vancouver Island. The southern community of killer whales off Vancouver Island has not recovered from the repeated captures and now they are compromised by other threats including pollution, boat traffic, and availability of food.” According to Hoyt, Russia’s Federal Agency for Fishery recently sought a second opinion after its usual panel of experts recommended zero killer whales be taken from Russian waters in 2014. The second opinion allows for a quota of ten orca captures in 2014, and the Agency will release its official decision soon.

If that quota is upheld at 10, activists worry, the orcas are likely to wind up in China. “We are developing at the cost of the environment, the animals, and even some of our own people ... As long as they have profits to make, they don’t care about anything,” says Qin Xiaona, who wishes she had known about Chimelong’s plan to purchase killer whales from Russia before they were imported. “I think it will be nearly impossible to give them [the killer whales] back.”

Now activists are working to make sure other marine parks in China don’t also try to acquire killer whales. They are following models used to protect different kinds of animals. In 2012, delegates submitted legislation to the National People’s Congress (NPC), the annual meeting of China’s almost-3000-person parliament, asking for a ban on shark fin consumption. While the legislation was not passed, according to Li, “the State Council issued a decision that in the next four years, shark fin soup will be phased out from all official catering events ...That is a major accomplishment. Whether or not they legislate on shark fin trade, they have to respond. They might do something small which creates an opportunity for future breakthrough.” In a similar move, in March, with the encouragement of Chinese activists, legislators submitted numerous animal welfare proposals to the NPC including one to ban imports of killer whales, according to someone close to the process.

Chimelong’s Su Zhigang and the Ministry of Agriculture have yet to respond to the letter from the coalition of animal welfare organizations, according to David Neale, who is the contact listed for response. Chimelong also did not reply to ChinaFile’s requests for comment. Ocean Kingdom’s new manager of animal training, the veteran killer whale trainer Julien Forestier, also did not return our email request for an interview. Neale visited Ocean Kingdom over a weekend in April of this year, and while he did see plush killer whales for sale in the souvenir shops, the killer whales of the live variety, if there, are not yet on public display.

Back in the United States, SeaWorld reported that their attendance dropped 13 percent in the first quarter of 2014. Activists in the states are calling this the “Blackfish-effect.” Almost 1.2 million people have signed an online petition in support of a California congressman’s legislative proposal to ban killer whale performance in California, currently home to 10 killer whales at SeaWorld San Diego. For those invested in the anti-captivity movement, the end of killer whale shows in the States seems near, but, says Peter Li, “whenever it feels like there is a light at the end of a tunnel here in the west, China is looming on the horizon. We have a major battle in front of us.” A bootleg version of Blackfish is floating around the Internet in China, but David Neale hopes the producers will consider releasing an official translated version.

Michael Zhao and Zou Yanbing contributed reporting.