Ever hear of a leaf-scaled sea-snake, an Araripe manakin, a Rio Pescado stubfoot toad, or an Amsterdam Island albatross? They are among 100 species of wild animals and plants recently designated as the world’s 100 most endangered species on a list compiled by 8,000 scientists at the World Conservation Congress.
You are more likely to have heard of the beluga whale, also called the white whale. Its population is thought to be from 62,000 to 80,000, by the National Marine Fisheries Service, while others estimate up to 100,000. Most experts believe there is some decline. Just for comparison, we people increase our numbers by 8 million per year. There will be another 300 of us by the time you finish reading this blog.
I consider myself lucky to have seen literally thousands of belugas as I flew in a small seaplane low over the shorelines and estuaries of the west coast of Hudson Bay, some years ago, and I had close-up looks at them in the Churchill River, when they swam over to the boat to gently nudge my hand left dangling over the side. It was the young ones who did this, apparently as a game of their own devising.
Now before we discuss the lies zoos tell, let me assure you that the wild belugas I saw were assemblies of mixed groups young and adults, swimming and diving amid millions of cubic kilometers of sea rich with a huge variety of sea life. Let me also assure you that they, like polar bears, rhinoceroses, elephants and gorillas, had absolutely no trouble breeding; they know how to do it.
Fast forward to late last summer. Georgia Aquarium Inc. applied to the Department of Commerce National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for a permit to import 18 beluga whales from the Sea of Okhotsk, Russia. Why? Georgia Aquarium’s website says it is committed to beluga conservation, and that its “studies” show that a number can be removed from the Sea of Okhotsk without depleting the population. Yeah, so? You could remove 300 humans from the population every couple of minutes without denting our numbers. But either action would be cruel to the individuals involved.
Belugas don’t breed well in captivity, but they are great favorites among visitors to aquariums. Like dolphins, their mouths are formed in a fixed configuration that makes it look like they are grinning, thus happy. The real thrust of research planned seems designed to better accommodate the species in captivity, but meanwhile, they must continually take animals from the wild. That is a process that in no way benefits belugas, putting stress on the animals forcibly captured and removed from their family and social groupings, and their homes, to spend the rest of their lives, those who survive, swimming around in the beluga equivalent of a jail cell, all for our amusement.
We do threaten belugas, directly by hunting them and indirectly through changes that we impose upon their environment. With global climate change dramatically reducing ice cover in seas belugas call home, we see increases in oil drilling and shipping. Nothing we can observe or learn from belugas swimming around in a concrete tank can teach us how to prevent such risks, the real risks to the ultimate, long-term survival of the species.
Captive breeding and release to the viable habitat can be a means to protect a truly endangered species, although such work is normally done far from public scrutiny, behind the scenes and not involving zoos. One does not need the zoo infrastructure to breed black-footed ferrets or Vancouver marmots for release back to the wild.
But don’t be fooled. Zoos and aquariums want you to believe they are somehow in the vanguard of conservation, but conservation has absolutely no connection to stealing belugas from their homes and imprisoning them so we can gawk at their cute faces.
Barry Kent MacKay