Born Free Foundation and International Marine Experts Are Outraged
Widespread opposition between the company Seaquarium Ltd. in Kenya and wildlife conservation groups and marine scientists is mounting related to a proposal to begin catching wild migrating whale sharks for public display in a marine enclosure off the southern Kenyan coast ostensibly for the purposes of “tourism and conservation.”
Whale sharks are the largest fish on the planet and, while their huge size and gaping-mouthed appearance can be terrifying, these docile plankton feeders pose no threat to man and are fully protected under various international wildlife laws and conventions.
A plan proposed by Seaquarium to capture wild whale sharks and transfer them to a shallow 600-meter-diameter enclosure, and charge tourists to swim with these sea leviathans, has marine biologists and other wildlife conservation groups up in arms.
The situation has come to a climax as the closing date for public comment on the project’s Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) comes to a close today. The EIA is rich in references to the anticipated, and much exaggerated financial benefits of the project, an undisclosed proportion of which they claim will be shared with local communities to encourage them to protect whale sharks.
However, internationally recognized marine scientists, including Dr David Obura, who has extensively studied the marine ecosystems of Kenya, feel that critical questions remain concerning the risks associated with capturing wild whale sharks, the welfare of these highly migratory animals when in captivity, and the dubious conservation and research claims of the project’s proponents.
According to Obura: “The conservation arguments for this project do not add up. There is no evidence to suggest whale sharks are being actively hunted, or that numbers are declining as a result. I am concerned that the welfare of these incredible creatures is the last thing on the mind of Seaquarium. You cannot tell me that such a sensitive species which is known to migrate more than 3,000 kilometers in a year, and dive down to 1,000 meters, can be happily confined to a shallow netted pond in the sea, with no possible escape from tourist stress, no ability to feed naturally, nor seek out the natural conditions that suit it at different times of the year, nor socialize.
“We know very little about whale shark reproduction, and the claims that the project will also be used for captive breeding are therefore highly spurious as well. No captive whale sharks have ever mated, in over 20 years of trials in other countries. This project is flawed from top to bottom,” Dr. Obura added.
With wild and increasingly ethically regulated encounters with free-living whale sharks available at a number of sites on the East African coast, the tourism argument for this does not stack up. Nonetheless, apparently without the endorsement of Kenya’s Wildlife Service, Seaquarium has already constructed the enclosure and plans to start trapping wild whale sharks to stock it.
Aaron Nicholas, conservation manager for the Born Free Foundation, stated: “We hope that this project will go no further and that Kenya will retain its pre-eminent position in Africa as a country that does not exploit its wildlife, with a focus on the truly wild experience that draws millions of tourists each year to its parks and waters to the benefit of millions of people nationwide. Furthermore, if the people behind this flawed and deeply misguided project really cared about the future of whale sharks they could support field-based conservation measures, including working with fishing communities and enhancing the capacity of Kenya’s marine protection agency to make a real difference for this species in the wild — where it belongs.”