Monday, 21 January 2013

Fate of the Solomon Island Dolphins


On Dolphins and Philippine Courts
By Khrysta Imperial Rara

Another year has begun but the issue of captive dolphins remains unresolved. There has been a paradigm shift in public opinion all over the world for the past several years but Philippine courts and government officials have yet to see the light. I wonder what it will take to make them realize that their actions – or inaction – are causing much damage to the marine environment as well as to their image among the Filipino public and the rest of the world.

A judge’s misguided judgement has already caused the death of a dolphin named Wen Wen en route to Singapore. Animal welfare activists in Asia manifested their protest against this gross injustice by holding candlelight vigils and memorial services simultaneously in Manila, Jakarta, Thailand and Singapore last December 2.

In Manila, the service was held at the Philippine Animal Welfare Society’s (PAWS) Animal Rehabilitation Center at the corner of Aurora Boulevard and Katipunan Avenue. The atmosphere was loaded with sadness while the flickering flames of the candles of participants illuminated their gloomy faces.

Frustrated by the obvious indifference and ridiculous ruling of the QC Regional Trial Court (QC RTC), an activist became emotional as she spoke of the need to never forget Wen Wen and what he stood for.

I had never seen anything like it. I had never imagined I would one day be attending a memorial service for a dolphin. PAWS even erected a memorial tile with the inscription: “Rest in Peace, Wen Wen. Swim freely across the Rainbow Bridge.”

But then 10-year old Wen-Wen was – or is – special. He was born in the wild and lived his first six years in absolute liberty, swimming 25 miles a day, breaching, chasing fish and cavorting with other members of his pod as all dolphins are meant to. Then human greed caught up with him and he suddenly found himself  a captive in pools and tanks filled with chlorinated water.

He was trained to play with hoops and balls, objects which he would never have encountered in the wild. He was fed dead fish and made to earn his keep by performing for boisterous children and ignorant adults. He was a prisoner though he had not committed any crime. But the shape of his face and head made people believe he was always smiling and happy.

The “dolphin smile” is the world’s greatest deception, as environmentalist Ric O’Barry always says.

Wen-Wen died on a plane last November 22 while being transported to Singapore where he was to be one of 25 dolphins slated to perform for the holidays at Resorts World Sentosa (RWS).

It was a sad and unjust death for a highly intelligent being and a tragic loss for his already depleted species.


But let’s backtrack a little bit. You may ask why a small bunch of activists and environmentalists is making all this fuss about Wen Wen and his kind.

The 25 wild-caught Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops aduncus) flown to Singapore last November were taken from the Guadalcanal area in the Solomon Islands. RWS brought them to Ocean Adventure Park in Subic in three batches in 2008, 2009 and 2011. They were to be trained and prepared for their eventual fate as animal entertainers.

But scientific reports from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) revealed that the dolphin population in the Solomon Islands (SI) is severely at risk and their harvest or extraction would further endanger the survival of the species.

According to the IUCN "Indo-Pacific Bottlenose Dolphin Assessment Workshop Report”, there are now less than 5,000 individuals in the Solomon Islands.

The SI government banned all dolphin hunts in their territorial waters starting January 2012. In addition, the law now stipulates that only one dolphin can be captured every five years.

The captures, mostly by an American company, had been done despite the international restrictions and recommendations.

The 24 dolphins now in Singapore are the survivors of a long and cruel journey. They were originally 27 –- before Wen-Wen, two died in their original destination, Langkawi, Malaysia. 

Earth Island Institute (EII), which monitors the welfare of captive marine mammals all over the world, and local animal welfare groups tried to block the entry of the Solomon dolphins in the Philippines, citing the IUCN report and the Philippine Wildlife Act (RA 9147).

But the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) of the Department of Agriculture would have none of it.

Philippine Courts and Philippine Laws

While the SI dolphins were still in Subic, the environmental and animal welfare groups continued to ask BFAR officials not to re-export the dolphins to Singapore. If the dolphins were to go anywhere, the groups wanted it to be the Solomon Islands.

When their pleas fell on deaf ears at the BFAR, they tried the courts. They had high hopes at first because Section 6 of RA 9147 states that "all activities…shall be authorized by the Secretary upon proper evaluation of best available information or scientific data showing that the activity is, or for a purpose, not detrimental to the survival of the species or subspecies involved and/or their habitat".

Trixie Concepcion, EII’s Regional Director for Asia, said the DA and BFAR violated RA 9147 when they allowed the dolphins to enter the Philippines despite recommendations to the contrary of the Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES) and internationally recognized scientific bodies like Silliman University and the National Museum.

EII, PAWS, CARA (Compassion and Responsibility for Animals) and concerned individuals then filed a petition to prevent the issuance of a re-export permit for the 25 dolphins. About an hour later, the office of the First Vice Executive Judge of the QC Regional Trial Court issued a 72-hour Temporary Environmental Protection Order (TEPO).

The Philippine Department of Agriculture (DA), the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) and Resorts World Sentosa in Singapore were respondents in the case.

Lawyer Mel Velasco said this case is a first in Philippine legal history. "We are charting unknown waters. We saw a loophole — the rule of using precautionary measures when there is conflict between authorities and they (the government) didn't follow that," he said.

The Precautionary Principle in Environmental Law is cited in the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) which the Philippines ratified in August 1981.

CITES is an international agreement that regulates trade in wild animals and plants and protects all species. According to CITES, authorities should consider the best interest of the conservation of species in any undertaking.

"BFAR violated certain rules. Precautionary measures should have been observed before they issued the permit to import the dolphins," Velasco said.

 “In light of the CITES provisions, any import of sea mammals should have the green light of internationally recognized scientific bodies. In the Philippines, National Museum and Silliman University are recognized as the CITES marine mammal experts," he clarified. "BFAR ignored the recommendations of National Museum and Silliman University.”
“Dolphins Are Pets”

But after 72 hours, Judge Evangeline Castillo- Marigomen of QC RTC Branch 101 ruled against any extension of the TEPO, saying the government agencies had not violated the law and the dolphins are like pets that belonged to RWS anyway.

"We were shocked and aghast when the judge likened the Solomon Island dolphins to 'pets'. She even asked us if we have been to SeaWorld where she said the dolphins are well cared for," Concepcion said.

In effect, this ruling allowed RWS to fly the dolphins to Singapore.
"This is tantamount to saying that it is all right to capture, train and use wild dolphins for dolphin shows even if this will threaten their survival in the wild," Concepcion quipped.

She added that “dolphins must never be mistaken as pets because they are wild animals”. To illustrate her point, she cited the case of two animal trainers and one intruder who died at SeaWorld after one of the resident killer whales, Tillicum, dragged them into the water and drowned them.

EII, PAWS, CARA Welfare Philippines, and 10 environmental and animal welfare advocates filed another petition, saying the re-export of the dolphins would violate both the CITES treaty and the country's Wildlife Act.

Concepcion called on the public to closely monitor the government's actions when it comes to environmental issues.
"We are doing this because if we don't do anything, it will institutionalize the government's failure to abide by its commitment to CITES, to protect all species and not just the dolphins," she stressed.


Singapore-based ACRES launched in 2011 the campaign to 'Save the World's Saddest Dolphins' to pressure both governments to return all the Solomon Islands dolphins to their natural habitat. . The campaign’s online petition has so far generated over 680,000 signatures from all over the world.

Last December 7, representatives of ACRES went to see the dolphins. “We regret that the dolphins are being housed in appalling conditions; in tiny barren swimming pools,” ACRES Chief  Executive Louis Ng said in a statement.

ACRES has issued a final ultimatum:  RWS must work with ACRES and Earth Island Institute for the rehabilitation and release of the dolphins back into the wild, or the group will launch a “full-fledged boycott against not just Resorts World, but all Genting properties.”

ACRES urged RWS to review the facts and reconsider their decision to keep the Solomon dolphins. “We hope that we won’t need to launch a boycott, but we are ready to do so if needed and we are confident that members of the public will support this,” Ng said.

With the Philippine court’s failure to act on a matter of environmental conservation, the animal welfare groups are confident that the Filipino people, like the Singaporeans, will eventually be able to pressure both governments to fly the dolphins back to the Solomons.

The ball now lies in the court of public opinion.

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