A maritime museum in Pakistan's most populous city, Karachi, is housing an unlikely trio for a whale and sea lion show that begins this week and owes its existence to the growing role of Russia in the international marine-mammal trade.
A trained beluga whale, dolphin, and sea lion will perform for the public three times a day in "a water show that will be the first of its kind to take place in Pakistan," according to "The Express Tribune."
A "large pool...built expecially for the purpose" sits in a stadium that holds around 2,000 people at the Maritime Museum, near a Pakistani Navy training and educational facility, PNS Karsaz.
The animals will jump, sing, and "give a stellar performance" once the public show begins next week, the report adds.
The decidedly exotic import thrusts Pakistan and the show's organizers into a raging global debate over the capture and treatment of intelligent marine mammals, particularly those with complex family and social structures and behaviors that cannot be approximated in tanks.
The World Wide Fund for Nature is among those criticizing the decision to bring the captive cetaceans (dolphins and whales) to Pakistan for oceanarium shows.
“We strongly suggest to the government and the agencies concerned to reconsider the initiative and look into the matter in detail. There are sufficient opportunities for public to see wild dolphins off the shore of Pakistan, especially Karachi. They can be observed without too much effort or expense and the experience is much more rewarding,” Pakistan's "Dawn" newspaper
quoted the group as saying.
Behavioral scientists and opponents of captivity for such wild animals are likely to cringe at the message that organizers are hoping to deliver to Pakistani audiences.
The "Tribune" article
quotes "Ali, one of the organisers, at the special demo show they held for the media on Saturday [January 4]" as saying the show "aims to create awareness about the species' human-friendly nature."
The whale-captivity debate has been kindled most recently by the American documentary film "Blackfish
," which chronicles the plight of killer whale Tilikum, involved in the deaths of three people since his capture off Iceland three decades ago.
The film is an indictment of the secretive trade in such intelligent mammals and the massive funds that they can generate in the entertainment industry.
Among its biggest targets is the perception that killer whales and other such animals -- which generally live in tightly based social groups that travel tens of kilometers or more every day -- can be acclimated to sedentary lives surrounded mostly by humans.
"It is not easy to deal with these species," the "Tribune" quotes Ukrainian beluga trainer Inga Strekach, who is part of the Pakistani project, as saying. "I hope people will love to see this show."
Russia is among the major contributors to the world's trade in whales and dolphins, in many cases dealing in creatures captured in the frigid waters off Russia's Far East coast or dolphins from the Black Sea.
Applicants in the United States were recently denied permission
to import a number of beluga whales from Russia over concerns at their methods of capture, which include rough tactics and, more worryingly, the taking of unweaned calves from their mothers.
A Russian scientist involved in the regulation of wild cetacean captures told RFE/RL
that demand for live dolphins and whales for the entertainment business has grown steeply, particularly from neighboring China.
The organizers of the Pakistani shows are the "Karachi-based Dolphin Show International" and "a Dubai-based company, Dolphin and I," according to "Dawn."
But the beluga traveled to Pakistan from Moscow and the dolphin is reportedly also on loan from Russia.
Beluga whales, which start life a mottled gray but take on a ghostly white appearance as adults, are native to the Arctic and sub-Arctic regions.
Trainer Strekach said the 10-year-old beluga whale in the Pakistani show "was born in captivity" and organizers have held performances "in many countries," "Dawn" reported. The paper added:
A pool has been specially made to accommodate the animals; it’s about 85 metres long, 50 metres wide and has a depth of 15 metres. The pool water is being filtered round the clock.
A visit to the facility showed the whale was being looked after by three experts, a trainer, a vet and an expert on water engineering who kept a check on the pool condition. The adorable whale seemed to have a small injury on its beak and made a lot of noise as its trainer called him.
The "Tribune" says the show's two-month run in Karachi will be extended if there's sufficient demand. Then, it reports, "the three stars are expected to make an appearance in Lahore and Islamabad as well."
-- Andy Heil