Two recent developments regarding Dolphins in Pakistan have re-ignited my interest in them. The first news item is that of a Dolphin show which is reportedly visiting Pakistan in the near future. It was originally stated to arrive here in October 2012 but has been considerably delayed due to a late monsoon season hampering pool preparations and later logistic and security reasons, etc. However, grapevine has it that the show will start within the next month. I’m keeping my flippers crossed.
The event is being organised by “The Talent Broker International (TBI)” of Pakistan and their international partners “Utrish Dolphinarium” from Russia. Even before its arrival, the show has attracted the criticism and concern from conservation groups and segments of the society.
Apprehension against such activities is an international phenomenon and often supported by views of experts. The “Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society” (WDCS), which “is the leading global charity dedicated to the conservation and welfare of all whales and dolphins” states in a publication titled “Introduction to Captivity”:
“Once confined, dolphins…
- Are separated from their natural habitat and enclosed in a totally alien environment. - Have to undergo medication and fertility control. - Have to put up with an artificial diet, unusual noise, strange odours and the proximity of people and other unfamiliar captive animals. - No longer have free will to choose social bonds. - May suffer aggression from other pool mates more dominant than them. - Are sometimes kept on their own (some in hotel swimming pools), e.g. four orcas are currently held in captivity on their own. - Suffer from stress, reduced life expectancy and breeding problems. - The Marine Mammal Inventory Report, maintained by the US government, lists a variety of causes of death including drowning, ingestion of foreign objects and aggression from pool mates.
The trouble with tanks: - Any tank is small and cramped compared to the open ocean. - Chemically-treated water effects dolphins’ sensitive skin, causing ulcers and skin lesions. - Chemically-treated water means no live fish or plants can be placed inside, leaving the tank bare and largely featureless, with no mental stimulation. - Many countries do not have minimum standards for housing captive dolphins.”
We in Pakistan are amongst those countries mentioned in the last point i.e., we do not have any minimum standards that need to be adhered to for keeping captive marine mammals. Hence, the question of a violation of national code does not arise.
The “Alliance for Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums” is “an international association representing marine life parks, aquariums, zoos, research facilities, and professional organisations”. They issue standards and guidelines for their members around the world, on the acquisition, disposition, training, care, environment and other aspects of establishing and running a marine mammal park or aquarium. Their standards and guidelines also include aspects conducive for awareness, education and conservation activities. Perhaps we can adopt their standards and guidelines in a customised manner under the regulatory oversight of the relevant Wildlife Departments.
Interestingly, the opportunity of a dolphin show visiting the country could also be utilised for initiating an academic or research program in liaison with local universities or to allow internship opportunities for local researchers and students.
Sometimes, captive animals are used for far more serious purposes than mere entertainment. Dating back from the times when canaries were kept in coal mines to raise alarm, certain tasks have been assigned to animals for greater efficiency and safety. Testing of pharmaceuticals during research and development on various animals, and chimpanzees being launched into space, prior to manned missions are modern examples of how animals have been able to reduce risk exposure to humans and in some cases have even been able to save scores of lives.
Similarly, the use of sniffer dogs has been instrumental in counter terrorism and search and rescue missions. K-9 units across the globe are a testimony to their effectiveness. However, dogs cannot be used for underwater counter-terrorism or search and rescue tasks. This is where Marine mammals including dolphins come in.
For decades, the US Navy’s Marine Mammal Program has trained and deployed marine mammals for important tasks such as detection of explosive mines, etc. The program has contributed greatly to scientific research on the animals. Amazingly, its website claims that, “these animals are released almost daily untethered into the open ocean, and since the program began, only a few animals have not returned.”
Although, reportedly a phase-out of the program will start from 2017, and the animals will gradually be replaced by robots! However, Pakistan can still benefit from a marine mammal initiative for usage by the Navy, customs, coast guards and other government organisations working in coastal areas. Imagine, a pod of Dolphins from Pakistan’s Marine Mammal program alerting Pakistani fishermen if they get too close to the border! We do have ample opportunity to initiate such a program, especially considering the second “development” discussed below.
The second news item I mentioned at the beginning was that thousands of dolphins were reported off the coast of Gawadar in December 2012.
This is not “news” for anyone who frequently visits the deeper Pakistani waters for his professional or recreational activities. As our navy personnel, mercantile sailors, oceanographers and fishermen will testify, Pakistani waters are home to a wide range of Cetaceans including several species of dolphins that often display inquisitive and playful behavior whenever a human vessel is nearby. One can often find them riding the bow waves created by the larger vessels and jumping into the air during the act. They are cheerful and noisy at such times, almost appearing to be having fun – surfing Cetacean style.
James Cameron was probably spot-on in his depiction of this behavior by Atlantic dolphins, in a scene in “Titanic” the 1997 blockbuster. However, any aspiring observer should be clear that although dolphins and even whales have been reported as near to Karachi as Churna Island, it does not constitute “deeper Pakistani waters”.
By then, I had already observed crocodiles, turtles, cobras, peacocks and other animals in the Pakistani wilderness. Hence at once, I wanted to see the dolphins and add them to my list of boasts.
As luck would have it, I have since then, observed wild dolphins in Pakistani waters on various occasions and have also organised a few Dolphin Safaris with ample opportunities for the participants to shoot at will – albeit with a camera, only. The occasions produced not the typical “Flipper”-ish displays we see in movies but wild behavior with some animals avoiding close proximity while others displaying curiosity. On occasions, there were pods of female dolphins with their young in tow, spraying water from their little blowholes.
On a personal note, having watched a specie display its natural behavior is a kind of a spoiler for life. It eliminates any charm in observing captive specimens. In fact, in the case of dolphins, the idea of observing unnatural acts being performed by captive dolphins for human entertainment has been borderline disturbing. Admittedly, the curiosity that lead to my encounters in the wild might not have originated, had it not been for trips to the local zoo, videos of circuses and dolphinariums, in the first place.
The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.