New article provides new details on Orca at Chimelong

June 14, 2016

. . . China is in the midst of a marine park building boom, with 39 facilities in operation and at least 14 more under construction. They range from Disney-size parks like Chimelong—considered the industry’s flagship—to shopping mall aquariums that shoehorn belugas and other animals into tiny tanks. China holds some 500 marine mammals in captivity, according to government records and an investigation by the China Cetacean Alliance, an international coalition that includes the Hong Kong Dolphin Conservation Society. The alliance’s goal is to persuade the Chinese public of the immorality of keeping highly intelligent and social animals in captivity. It’s a tough task: A year after its opening, Chimelong became the world’s 13th-most-visited theme park in 2015, attracting 7.5 million customers paying $53 a ticket. That’s a 40 percent increase in attendance from 2014. China’s seemingly insatiable demand for whales and dolphins is driving a shadowy international trade in the capture of wild marine mammals that conservationists fear threatens the survival of several species.

The country has yet to perfect the captive breeding techniques that allowed marine parks in the United States to stop capturing wild marine mammals 30 years ago. Here, when a dolphin dies it must be replaced by one captured from the wild, keeping in business the brutal annual dolphin hunt in Taiji, Japan. Taiji has supplied at least 70 dolphins—each worth between $150,000 and $1 million—to Chinese marine parks over the past four years, according to Ceta-Base, a nonprofit that tracks the marine mammal trade. The country has also imported 209 wild bottlenose dolphins since 2010, along with dozens of other dolphin species. The United States government last year prohibited the Georgia Aquarium from buying 18 beluga whales from Russia owing to uncertainty over the impact on the wild population. China, meanwhile, has imported as many as 114 wild belugas from Russia since 2010, including the 13 being held at Chimelong Ocean Kingdom. A single beluga can fetch a quarter-million dollars or more.

Even as SeaWorld moves to end breeding of killer whales and activistshope to resettle captive orcas in sea pens, the ocean’s top predator is being hunted in Russia to supply marine parks in China willing to pay $3 million to $5 million or more for an orca. Decades after other countries banned the capture of killer whales, the Russian government permitted the catch of more than a dozen between 2013 and 2015, according to Ceta-Base. That deeply worries marine mammal experts. Killer whales are highly social marine mammals that live in lifelong family groups. The particular population targeted by hunters for sale to Chinese and Russian marine parks may number only in the hundreds. “If there’s only a few dozen being caught, that’s a lot of captures,” says Erich Hoyt, a renowned killer whale expert who serves as senior research fellow at the conservation group Whale and Dolphin Conservation in the United Kingdom and codirector of the Far East Russia Orca Project. “You’re not just eliminating a breeding unit, which is significant in itself. You may be affecting the future of the species.”

That’s another reason Chang and I have come to Chimelong Ocean Kingdom. No killer whales so far have appeared at any marine park in China. Yet records from the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species show that seven killer whales have been exported to China from Russia since 2013. The Chinese government, meanwhile, has confirmed to activists that nine killer whales have been imported from Russia to Guangdong province, and multiple industry sources have told them the buyer is Chimelong.

So where are they?

The Russian Connection

Jeff Foster made his living in the 1970s and ’80s capturing killer whales in the Pacific Northwest and Iceland for SeaWorld and other marine parks. He quit the business in 1990, increasingly troubled by tearing orcas away from their families. Then in early 2011 came the call that almost lured Foster out of retirement.

On the line was a European animal broker who said his clients were prepared to pay Foster $7 million to capture eight killer whales off Russia’s Pacific coast. “He was working for the Chinese and the Russians,” says Foster, who had embarked on a new career as a marine mammal researcher and anti-captivity advocate. “The Chinese were the buyers, and the Russians had the permits. They wanted to bring me in to do the capture and transport and initial training of the animals. The Russians had been trying to capture killer whales for 15 years, and they just didn’t have qualified people showing them how to do it.”

Foster never learned the identity of the Chinese buyers. “The broker kept it very vague. He just said they were Chinese, and they had a lot of money.” Apparently so. On top of the $7 million capture fee, the buyers would have had to pay the Russians between $25 million and $80 million for the orcas and bear the multimillion-dollar cost of transporting the giant animals thousands of miles. Foster’s job would be to capture the killer whales and train them to eat dead fish and to perform basic “behaviors,” such as submitting to a medical exam. “You blow the whistle and give them a fish when they do something right,” he says. When the orcas were ready, Foster would oversee their transport to China.

With the capture of wild orcas banned in the United States, Canada, Iceland, and Europe, the Sea of Okhotsk in the Russian Far East has become one of the last legal hunting grounds for killer whales. “They felt they would only be able to catch animals for two or maybe three years before the environmental activists would become a problem,” Foster says of his potential clients. “It was more money than I’ll ever see in my lifetime, so it was tempting. But I couldn’t do it. I just couldn’t do it.”

The hunt, however, went on.

Russian companies learned how to capture killer whales, and in October 2013, seven orcas were taken in the Sea of Okhotsk, Ceta-Base records show, and at least five more were taken in 2014 and 2015. Obtaining information on the hunts and the fate of captured killer whales in a remote region of Russia is difficult, according to activists. Outsiders are not welcomed, but Hoyt and other scientists at the Far East Russia Orca Project have spent 17 years studying the area’s killer whales and receive data from informants about the hunts. It is known, for instance, that after capture the animals must endure a more-than-600-mile journey by truck to small holding pens in the port city of Nakhodka. “It’s really difficult to get into the holding facility, but people have sent us photos,” says Hoyt. “The pens are always small, but that’s part of their game. They’re trying to get the orcas used to living in a little box.”

A series of photos show an orca being lowered by crane into a box barely bigger than the animal. The shipping container is lined with a blue tarp, and two men are filling it with water. A crane then lifts the closed container onto a tractor-trailer. In other photos, an orca floats in a small holding pen. “It looks like some of them are going fairly quickly to China,” says Hoyt. “We don’t know much about how they get there. That’s the stuff done in the dead of the night.”

Mitchel Kalmanson knows. “Some of them get flown, some are shipped by truck, and I was involved with one of them that moved by barge coast to coast,” says Kalmanson, a Florida-based marine mammal consultant and broker who specializes in the transportation of animals. He says a London insurer hired him to monitor the preparations for transport of killer whales from Russia to China in 2014. By truck. The journey took seven to 10 days. He won’t reveal the identity of the buyer and says he doesn’t know the fate or the orca that was subjected to what must have been a grueling ordeal.

“Transporting by truck puts far more stress on the animals,” says Kalmanson. “In a truck, you have road hazards, you have to change the water in the container, you have to filter out urine and feces, and you have to have a lot of ice. And the animals can only lay down so much. You have to go over mountains on narrow roads.”

It sounds insane. Why take such risks with a multimillion-dollar “asset” and make a killer whale suffer distress?  Money, for one thing. It can cost several hundred thousand dollars to put a killer whale on a plane, according to Kalmanson. Activists, for another. “Most people won’t talk about the marine mammal trade because it’s underground—not because it’s illegal but because of the activists,” he says. “We use unmarked aircraft, unmarked airlines, and out-of-the-way runways to move these animals because they don’t want activists to know about it. A truck is a lot easier to hide than a plane.”

And so, apparently, are nine killer whales.

The Sea Lion in the Bathroom

Once marine mammals arrive in China they’re kept out of sight until they’re trained to perform in shows. “They have a lot of holding areas, and they’re marginal,” says Kalmanson, noting that he has worked as a consultant to Chimelong. “I was in North China one day, and they had just brought in 11 beluga whales. They were being held in a pool with a bad water-filtration system that was inside a building that you’d think was an apartment complex if you were walking by on the street.”

Naomi Rose is a marine mammal scientist and a veteran anti-captivity activist with the Animal Welfare Institute, which participated in the China Cetacean Alliance’s investigation of Chinese marine parks. “These marine parks look like they’re from the ’60s, and they’re brand-new,” says Rose. “Paint is chipping, and everything is rusting. There appears to be no construction standards.”

. . . Chang, 28, worked at Hong Kong Ocean Park monitoring water quality until he became disillusioned with captivity and joined the Hong Kong Dolphin Conservation Society. “It’s very difficult for a person who loves animals to work there,” he says. While Ocean Park’s veterinarians were well trained, he notes that many mainland marine parks lack the staff and expertise to properly care for marine mammals. “In some facilities in China they don’t even have a vet for the animals,” says Chang. “They don’t have the professional staff to care for belugas or know what is a suitable environment for them.”

Even at Chimelong Ocean Kingdom, considered to have the highest standards of the mainland marine parks, we see conditions that would trigger protests by animal rights activists in the U.S. or Europe. The opening act for the beluga show, for instance, is a performance by five Pacific white-sided dolphins. Again, the animals, accustomed to temperate to cool oceans, are swimming in the same pool as cold-water belugas.

Chang, 28, worked at Hong Kong Ocean Park monitoring water quality until he became disillusioned with captivity and joined the Hong Kong Dolphin Conservation Society. “It’s very difficult for a person who loves animals to work there,” he says. While Ocean Park’s veterinarians were well trained, he notes that many mainland marine parks lack the staff and expertise to properly care for marine mammals. “In some facilities in China they don’t even have a vet for the animals,” says Chang. “They don’t have the professional staff to care for belugas or know what is a suitable environment for them.”

Even at Chimelong Ocean Kingdom, considered to have the highest standards of the mainland marine parks, we see conditions that would trigger protests by animal rights activists in the U.S. or Europe. The opening act for the beluga show, for instance, is a performance by five Pacific white-sided dolphins. Again, the animals, accustomed to temperate to cool oceans, are swimming in the same pool as cold-water belugas. . . .

Where Are China’s Orcas?

The photo shows a killer whale floating in a darkened pool, its head peeking above the surface, the water reflecting fluorescent lights. The location is tagged “Chimelong Ocean Kingdom,” and the image was posted in February on Instagram by Chen Guoliang, a marine mammal trainer at the park. One of Chimelong’s Russian trainers, Maria Mirtova, “liked” the photo. A second photo posted by Chen shows two orcas side by side poking their heads out of a pool. Chang says the photos were quickly taken down, along with other photos of the marine park and any indication that Chen worked at Chimelong—but not before activists took screen shots.

Chang says a source who works for Chimelong told the activists that the orcas were being held nearby. “We have solid information that the killer whales are being held on a military base, though we don’t know the exact location,” he says.

A Chimelong Ocean Kingdom representative told TakePart in an emailed statement that the marine park does not have “kill whales for shows.” There are indications, however, that Chimelong is preparing for orca exhibits. The marine park’s director of training and zoological operationsworked as a killer whale trainer at Loro Parque, a Canary Islands marine park affiliated with SeaWorld. Chimelong’s former director of aquatic operations was another SeaWorld alum. As part of a $7.5 billion expansion, Chimelong Group, the marine park’s parent company, began construction in January on a marine park adjacent to Ocean Kingdom to be called Chimelong Ocean World; it’s set to open in 2017 and transform Zhuhai into the “Orlando of China.” “Before the opening of Chimelong, we saw a theme park map showing a place called ‘Orca Stadium,’ ” says Hung.

When the world’s biggest marine park, Haichang Polar Ocean World, opens in Shanghai next year, it will feature killer whale shows, according to an environmental impact statement the China Cetacean Alliance obtained.

Marine mammal scientists worry that once Chimelong or Haichang puts on orca shows, competitors will follow suit and rush to acquire wild killer whales. Such fears are well founded, according to theme park consultant Dennis Speigel, who has worked on projects in China. “What typically happens in China is that when something is introduced and accepted, it inspires copycats,” says Speigel, president of International Theme Park Services in Cincinnati, Ohio. “Other parks will want their own killer whale shows, and that will drive up the price of those animals.”

“Quite frankly, I’m not sure you could do this anyplace other than China, given the current feeling about captivity and the Blackfish aftermath,” he says, referring to the 2013 documentary that alleged mistreatment of killer whales at SeaWorld.

The only places left for China to acquire wild marine mammals are Japan and Russia. “China has the highest number of marine mammals in captivity, and it’s still expanding,” Hung says. “If the industry keeps growing in China, it’ll give us no hope to stop the slaughter of dolphins at Taiji.” . . . .

In Russia, marine scientists fear demand for killer whales threatens the survival of a distinct type of orca called transients, which eat marine mammals and display behaviors different from fish-eating orcas, which are called residents. (Nearly all the 56 orcas in captivity are residents.) Hoyt and other scientists who have spent years studying killer whales in the Sea of Okhotsk believe the population of mammal-eating orcas is small, given that they have only identified 55 transients in the area, while they have counted more than 1,500 individual residents. The researchers have determined that most, if not all, of the orcas captured for export to China are transients.

“The live capture of killer whales raises concerns because it takes place in a limited area in the western Okhotsk Sea,” Hoyt and his colleagues wrote in a 2014 paper. “All killer whales encountered there during studies belonged to the transient ecotype. In that area whales often travel close to shore looking for seals, which makes them susceptible to being captured from small boats.”

Hoyt says that while the Russian government, which estimates there are 3,130 orcas in the region, sets yearly quotas for the capture of killer whales, it does not distinguish between the two types of orcas. In other words, the government is allowing transients to be caught without considering the impact on the population. “Absolutely, Chinese interests are driving capture of killer whales,” he says.

Robin Baird is a wildlife biologist at the Cascadia Research Collective in Olympia, Washington, who has studied transient killer whales in the Pacific Northwest for 30 years. He notes that transients live in tight-knit social groups and work together to hunt seals, porpoises, and whales. “They’re similar to elephants really, as the older animals carry a lot of cultural knowledge, and killer whales are slow to mature and reproduce,” says Baird. “Taking nine animals out of a population is a substantial number when a lot of these populations number in the low hundreds. Depending on the age and sex, it could have tremendous implications for survival of the rest of the populations.” He noted that the Pacific Northwest’s resident populations are still recovering from captures in the 1960s and ’70s for SeaWorld and other marine parks.

Another concern: The survival of the captured transients depends on trainers’ ability to get the animals to forgo a life of hunting and consuming seals and other tasty marine mammals and persuade them to eat frozen fish. Hoyt and Baird note that at least one transient captured in the Pacific Northwest died after rejecting a fish diet.

“It’s a very lucrative business,” says Hoyt of the orca trade. “If Chimelong follows the SeaWorld model, they will want to start breeding killer whales and selling them off. It could get very messy and awful for years to come.” . . .

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