Author Topic: Suffering of intelligent gentle dolphins means nothing to greed driven man  (Read 2470 times)

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Dolphin tale

The Solomon Islands has become the epicentre of the international dolphin trade.

Anchored in the cerulean shallows of a tiny islet in the Solomon Islands is a curious rectangular pool made from fishing nets. From a distance, it could be a swimming enclosure for a tropical tourist resort, and the image is enhanced by the tree house artfully perched in the rainforest overlooking the beach.

But this complex on Mbungana Island, about one hour's boat ride from the capital, Honiara, is no idyllic tourist retreat. Held captive inside the underwater enclosure are five wild dolphins - Tursiops aduncus or Indo-Pacific bottlenoses - beloved by dolphin handlers the world over for the ease with which they can adjust to captivity, and be taught marine-park tricks.

  For-THE GOOD WEEKEND Solomon Islands Dolphin Trade. Dolphin catcher and exporter Robert Satu at home wearing a necklace made from teeth from 22 Dolphins .17th of May 2012 Picture by JOE ARMAO "A new business" Solomon Islander Robert Satu says he is the best dolphin catcher in the world. Photo: Joe Armao
As I approach the pen by boat, four tough-looking Solomon Islanders rush from the bush, one with axe in hand, ordering me and my fellow crew members to moor elsewhere. They call their boss while we watch their prisoners rise excitedly out of the water, as if looking for escape, then flop back down, resigned to their fate.

The guards ban us from approaching the pen: security is tight when you're involved in one of the world's most controversial live-animal exports. At any time, these animals could be scooped out of their native waters, shipped to Honiara, then placed in a coffin-sized tank in the hold of a cargo jet to be flown to a tourist marine park in China or the Middle East and sold for up to $100,000 each.

In the past few years, the oceans around this cluster of islands, about 1600 kilometres north-east of Townsville, have become a sort of ground zero for the live trade in wild dolphins. "Ten years ago nobody would have thought you could sell dolphins, and now it's a new, valuable resource," says John Roughan, a former academic and political scientist who has resided in the Solomon Islands for 55 years. "If we keep doing it, though, we're not going to have any left."

The tradition of dolphin hunting in the islands dates back hundreds of years, to when fishermen from coastal villages would paddle their flimsy canoes far out to sea to "call" the creatures and drive them into the shallows. There, they would be dragged onto the beach and eaten, their teeth used as currency for dowry negotiations or as jewellery.

It was this tradition that first attracted Canadian dolphin trainer Chris Porter to the islands in the early 2000s. Establishing the first dolphin-export business, he claimed he was ''saving" animals from being killed by locals.

His timing was good: the country was in disarray, still recovering from a breakdown in law and order, and regulation was minimal. The Solomon Islands was not, at the time, a signatory to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which classifies Indo-Pacific dolphins as an Appendix II species - not necessarily threatened, but subject to strict control to "avoid utilisation incompatible with their survival".

In 2003, Porter captured 94 Indo-Pacific dolphins and exported 28 to Mexico, an action that put him and the Solomon Islands on a collision course with conservationists and animal-rights activists. By 2010, Porter had renounced the trade and returned to Canada. Many thought the endeavour would end there, but three new dealers emerged, meaning more wild dolphins than ever are being quietly whisked out of the country.

When Good Weekend visited the Solomon Islands recently, a government-sponsored conference on dolphin dealing and hunting was in session in Honiara. The government has flagged a ban on the trade, but is yet to scrap the export quota of between 40 and 50 dolphins a year.

Research had been presented suggesting the quota had depleted the local dolphin population and was unsustainable. The conclusion is disputed by dealers like Dr Badley Anita, a Solomon Islander who is the boss of the Mbungana Island operation and also the islands' principal vet.

Asked why his five animals on Mbungana Island are off-limits to scrutiny, Anita says, "We are researching diseases and you cannot go near them. The whole idea of export is to sustain our [captive breeding program]."

He rejects all concerns that his veterinary qualifications conflict with any role in dolphin export. "It's just like any Australian vet who supervises live cattle export."

While Anita's operation is low profile, another dealer, Francis Chow, has a different approach. He has set up the town's only dolphin tourist attraction by bulldozing a semicircle of earth out into the ocean and stringing a net across the opening. The pen is just behind the office of the country's Prime Minister, Gordon Darcy Lilo, and visitors must transit past the usually open boom gate of the Prime Minister's compound to access the complex.

Overlooking the pool, Chow has built a coffee shop, complete with viewing platform, as well as  a bar on a jetty that overlooks the pool. When I visit, three wild bottlenose dolphins float motionless in the pen behind a net strung across the opening of the enclosure, surrounded by crowds of gawking children who occasionally toss rocks or litter into the water.

Chow vigorously defends his right to export the animals and makes no secret of his desire to continue. ''If they [the activists] want to give me $10 million, I will stop it," says Chow, who claims to have been approached by buyers from all over the world, including an operation looking to use the animals for military purposes. His pen is a popular stop for dolphin activists, who have tried to release the animals and once buzzed the pond with a camera-equipped aerial drone until Chow's workers downed it with a hail of stones.

One of those activists is Earth Island Institute campaigner Ric O'Barry, once a dolphin trainer for the popular 1960s TV show Flipper. He feels for the animals involved: "They are miserable. They have a high mortality rate and when they die, [the traders] simply dump them and get more."

Such claims do not appear to overly concern Prime Minister Lilo, who has so far declined to say if the trade will be halted should research show it is detrimental to the species. "The laws of the country are very tough," he says. "You can't have anything exported illegally."

Dr Marc Oremus, a marine ecologist based in New Caledonia who has just completed a lengthy study of the bottlenoses in the islands, is adamant the quota is unsustainable. "If you keep removing populations from the wild at the rate that is authorised, you will have a depletion of the population until it completely disappears."

But when presented with scientific evidence, the dolphin catchers are not impressed. Says the third dolphin dealer, Solomon Islander Robert Satu, "I know where there are 20 right now. As soon as I get the approval, I will catch them and export them."

At his home in a fishing village on the outskirts of Honiara, the distinguished-looking chief poses in a traditional dolphin-tooth necklace that wraps around his neck and waist like an ammunition belt. He reveals that more than a dozen dolphins died to provide the teeth he's wearing today.

Over the shrieks of an agitated captive eagle - a must for any Solomon Islands chief - he boasts he is the best dolphin catcher in the world. "Some people might think it is cruel," he says, "but, for me, I think it is a new business, a new trade."
September 1, 2012    Rory Callinan

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