Manila Ocean Park denies 'Beluga whale' plan

The Manila Ocean Park has denied planning to bring in endangered beluga whales as an additional attraction to the theme park, amid an ongoing online petition against it.

Armi Cortes, MOP vice president for sales and marketing, told Yahoo! Southeast Asia that bringing in beluga whales, found in Arctic and sub-Arctic waters, "is not even an option." She said the protest is premature since MOP's management committee has yet to even decide how it will expand in coming years.

She said expansion may be in more marine exhibits, an exhibit of terrestrial animals, or in research, which she said MOP has been doing quietly "at the back of the house." Among MOP's research programs are coral reef propagation and a study on water quality and the presence of potentially invasive species in Manila Bay, she said.

Another option is to work on getting international accreditation with groups like the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums and Southeast Asian Zoos Association. Both organizations put emphasis on conservation. "The implication of that is we must be in compliance with international standards on aquariums," Cortes  said.

"We are choosing from 25 ideas, and weighing the pros and cons of each," she said, adding it is unfair to talk about bringing in beluga whales "as if it were a definite thing."

She said MOP is aware of its responsibility to educate Filipinos on the importance of conservation.

The petition may have been prompted by a letter that environmentalist Anna Oposa sent Manila Ocean Park last month. Oposa, co-founder of Save Philippine Seas, said she was tipped off of the supposed plan by a former park employee. "This person, who wishes to remain anonymous, brought our attention to the news that MOP will again attempt to import dolphins and now beluga whales for an open-air attraction scheduled from 2013-2015."

Why the protest?

Gregg Yan, communications manager for World Wide Fund for Nature Philippines, told Yahoo! Southeast Asia that although zoos and aquariums play an important role in society, WWF cannot support bringing belugas to the country.

He explained that keeping an endangered species in captivity should only be done if it outweighs the risks to the species. Endangered species can be kept in captivity for breeding, for research that will improve stocks in the wild, or for educational purposes.

But even for educational purposes, WWF draws the line at keeping animals like dolphins and whales, and marine mammals like dugongs.

"And definitely not for entertainment," Yan said, adding the beluga whales are appealing because they are "attractive to look at" and because they seem to smile. "We don't know if they are actually smiling," he said.

He said that even if MOP can replicate the temperature and water conditions of the Arctic to keep the beluga whales, it will not be able to do so fully. "They can try and the whales can live for a few years," Yan said. He said that since whales use echolocation to interpret their environment in the wild, being cooped up in a tank would disorient them. "Now imagine the extra stress of thousands of people clapping after every trick," he said.

Seeing endangered species kept in captivity--or worse, performing tricks--would also send the wrong message to Filipino children, Yan said. He said this might make children think it is acceptable to keep endangered animals as pets.

He said it would be better for MOP to call off the supposed plan and "concentrate on the great work they are already doing." He added people should not patronize the beluga exhibit, if it does happen, or any other exhibit or show that features dolphins and whales.

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