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Dolphins and Us
Main article | Singapore Dolphin Study Group

Daniel Goh, Chairman of Jalan Hijau, Nature Society (Singapore) Youth Environment Group, discusses the rationale behind dolphin conservation and education, and about their successful Friends of Dolphins exhibition. Photos by Etienne Douaze and Dr Thomas Jefferson.

To many people, Singapore is a highly urbanised city with its surrounding sea populated (and polluted) by ships from all over the world. We are easily surprised when we discover that Singapore actually has a richly diverse, though precarious, natural heritage. We are even more surprised to discover this natural heritage includes dolphins in Singapore waters.

Bottlenose Dolphin
The most common species
used for performances in
marine parks
According to the ongoing Singapore Wild Marine Mammal Survey (SWIMMS) conducted by the Dolphin Study Group at the National University of Singapore, four types of small cetaceans have been sighted in Singapore waters: the Bottlenose, Indo-Pacific Humpback and Irrawaddy dolphins, and the Finless Porpoise. Their presence is not doubted.

What is the role of Nature Society (Singapore) vis-à-vis dolphins? Jalan Hijau started to ask this question seriously when an article in The Straits Times announced the arrival of six Indo-Pacific Humpback dolphins at Underwater World Singapore (UWS). The attraction has plans to "construct a permanent dolphin facility with a large grandstand" with the intention of displaying "the type of performances that you might see in Australia or America" (Dolphins fly in by Charlie to Underwater World, 18 July 1999, The Sunday Times, Sunday Plus, page 6). Four of the dolphins were captured in Thailand while the other two were born in captivity.

Jalan Hijau members decided that further research was needed to familiarise ourselves with the existing knowledge about cetaceans and the complexities of cetacean captivity and conservation issues. Then we presented and shared our research and conclusions with the public in an exhibition "The Friends of Dolphins" held in November.

In the course of our research, there were many valid arguments against cetaceans in captivity. The most convincing one was that the range of cetaceans in the wilderness could extend to more than 100 km a day. It is not surprising that such a naturally space-loving animal stressed easily when held captive in pools that can never be big enough.

Furthermore, most dolphins are social and playful in character (Pryor and Norris, 199 1). Captivity often means forcibly separating them from their natural groups and putting them into artificial associations and reducing play opportunities. These ultimately lead to the most pertinent question: "is it right for us to exploit them for our own entertainment and commercial gain?"

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with entertainment. The problem is when our entertainment comes at a cost to these animals. That is why many conservation and animal welfare groups around the world encourage the use of multimedia products (print, video, CD-ROM) featuring cetaceans that are at the same time educational and entertaining. But some argue that such educational appreciation is never the same as seeing the real thing.

After some debating among ourselves, we decided that because Nature Society (Singapore) is primarily a conservation group, our approach to the issue should be based mainly on the conservation ethic but reasonably combined with animal welfare ethics. Because our modem lifestyle means that our everyday life decisions and action can have repercussions for wild dolphins, public education is crucial for any conservation effort and, we could not deny that captive displays may have some educational value oriented to the conservation of dolphins.

However, for any captive display to redeem its educational value, it must adhere first of all to best practices with regards to cetacean welfare. Thereafter, because captivity comes at a great cost to the dolphins, the quality of the educational programme should surpass that of programmes without captive dolphins. Additionally, shows that make specific dolphin species perform movements not observed of that species in the wild run counter to genuine education. Not all dolphins leap or are as forthcoming and friendly as the Bottlenose. The Indo-Pacific Humpback is known to be a slow swimmer and to be difficult to approach, often avoiding boats. Lastly, the holding of captive dolphins for educational display should not in any way encourage the capture of more wild dolphins, as it would contradict the conservation premise for education.

The last point is worrying because the World Conservation Union (IUCN) has reported that "a directed net fishery for Irrawaddy and [Indo-Pacific Humpback] has developed in Thailand to supply live dolphins to marine parks" (Reeves and Leatherwood, 1994:27). The Indo-Pacific Humpback is also greatly threatened by habitat destruction and degradation because it prefers natural coastal habitats such as mangroves reefs, sandbanks and mudbanks in the tropical West Pacific and Indian Oceans. It is classified as endangered under CITES (Convention for the International Trade in Endangered Species) although it is "insufficiently known" in terms of behaviour, biology and status in the wild by the IUCN's Red Data Book (Klinowska, 1991).

In view of this classification, the IUCN recommends that "if any more specimens are taken into captivity the opportunity should be taken to collect information on biology, behaviour and breeding relevant to conservation and management [of wild populations], as well as for captive breeding in case this ever became necessary for conservation" (Klinowska, 1991:127). There is potential scientific and conservation value in the captive Indo-Pacific Humpback dolphins that UWS has acquired. In the same July article mentioned earlier, UWS announced that it would be studying the husbandry, growth rates and breeding behaviour of the humpbacks, and would embark on a breeding programme.

Under Article 9 of the 1993 Convention on Biological Diversity (ex-situ conservation for the purpose of in-situ conservation), the conservation value of captive breeding programmes can only be redeemed if a programme to rehabilitate captive dolphins back into the wild accompanies such programmes (Glowka et al; 1994:52-6).

After some discussion together with us, UWS promised that, "if breeding is successful, it will also consider releasing the dolphins back to the wild" (They won't somersault on Sentosa, 13 November 1999, The Straits Times, Life! page 7). It also promised that the dolphins will not be made to perform tricks which are "unnatural".

While we have to wait and see whether the first promise will be fulfilled, the second is already precariously kept. In the dolphin show preview that a few of us attended, the climax of the show featured the trainers doing a balancing act standing on two dolphins as they were made to swim fast towards the audience. Amidst the exclamations of the audience, we wondered what did such a circus-like act achieve and whether it was counter-productive in terms of education. Furthermore, we were disappointed with the merchandise shop, which should get top marks for its pretty items but was totally lacking in the sale of educational materials such as guidebooks and videos that can be easily sourced and stocked.

In the light of all these, Jalan Hijau sees itself as playing the role of a conservation group that is both an independent pressure group and one providing public education concerning cetacean conservation. We are also organising a Dolphin Watch team to gather more data on the dolphins that have been sighted in Singapore.

The Friends of Dolphins exhibition, which took place at The Heeren Shops from 13 - 21 November, will remain the mainstay of the team. The exhibition was highly successful. Nearly 3,000 signatures were collected for the pledge to protect wild dolphins. Nearly 700 mostly young people took part in the quiz and gave us very encouraging feedback about the exhibition. Many said that the exhibition had helped them to learn a lot about dolphins, which they thought of previously only as cute animals. Over 30 volunteers were involved in the exhibition in one way or another and gained much experience. The Dolphin Watch team will continue the exhibition by bringing it to schools. Jalan Hijau will also provide their feedback for UWS so that they can improve the educational content of their captive display and shows.

Some people may be upset that we have become too "confrontational" in the Friends of Dolphins project. My answer to that is as long as we employ reason to state our position and engage others in discussion, we are encouraging the constructive process of trying to find a workable consensus for a better society. In the course of studying the history of Nature Society (Singapore), I have learnt that it is our employment of sound reasoning to argue for conservation and our courageous integrity to speak when we must that earned the Society its respect from the public. Nature Society (Singapore)'s austere seriousness and rational approach have also prevented accusations that we are merely doing things that are "sexy" or "hip" in our age of thinking green. Jalan Hijau is consciously walking in the footsteps of Nature Society (Singapore)'s older, wiser and more experienced conservationists, contributing to a better Singapore and a better Earth for every creature.

  • Glowka, et al, 1994, A Guide to the Convention on Biological Diversity. IUCN: Gland, Switzerland.
  • Klinowska, Margaret, 1991, Dolphins, Porpoises and Whales of the World. The IUCN Red Data Book. IUCN: Gland, Switzerland.
  • Pryor, Karen and Kenneth S Norris (editors), 1991, Dolphin Societies: Discoveries and Puzzles. University of California Press: California.
  • Reeves, Randall R and Stephen Leatherwood, 1994, Dolphins, Porpoises and Whales: 1994-1998 Action Plan for the Conservation of Cetaceans. IUCN: Gland, Switzerland.
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