HORRIFYING scenes of abuse and torture of wild ocean animals have been uncovered in a disturbing new investigation that explores the dark side of China’s booming aquarium business.
Al Jazeera’s 101 East sent undercover investigators behind the scenes of 15 of China’s biggest marine parks, only to discover what reporter Steve Chao describes as, “widespread neglect and abuse.”
“Animals meant to roam the oceans are being confined in horrific conditions, resulting in many deaths,” Chao says.
“For years we’d heard about terrible conditions in China’s aquariums but the extent of animal suffering and cruelty was hard to fathom.”
Marine parks are big business in China. With a booming middle class with money to spend, the holiday sites and novelty attractions are more popular than ever. There are over 60 multi-million-dollar marine theme parks alone, with more than 36 large-scale projects in the pipeline.
Despite live-animal shows waning in popularity in the West, the interest in China is showing no signs of slowing down.
But the scenes shown in 101 East’s documentary, due to air Thursday, may have some people questioning if it’s worth it.
At one aquarium, the team found a freezer full of dolphin carcasses. The marine park’s vet claims they died from over-working.
“Three of those were the lead performing dolphins,” the vet said in a secretly recorded conversation. “They died from something that has to do with over-exertion. Their intestines were twisted… caused by some of the moves.”
According to the China Cetacean Association, 872 cetaceans have been put into captivity in China since 2014. These include whales, dolphins and porpoises.
But it’s not just animals who are at risk from the aquariums’ lax policies.
101 East found untrained workers were employed in the parks leading to dangerous encounters with the wild animals.
One aquarium manager told that a cleaner almost died when a beluga whale dragged him under the water while he was cleaning its enclosure.
The aquariums, it seems, are well aware of their wrongdoing and are actively trying to hide it from the public and authorities.
The same vet who worked with the dolphins said employees were not able to discuss the deaths outside of the park. If people outside of the company found out, it could get “troublesome,” he told the undercover investigators.
Bribes are also paid to customs officers to allow the animals into the country, one industry insider told the team.
As the parks are a fairly recent phenomenon in China, they have not yet developed a breeding programme to source the animals, as they do in the West.
Instead, the animals are imported from around the globe – dolphins from Africa and manatees from Russia, the man said.
The demand for such animals is driving the illegal trade of endangered wildlife and China is yet to implement any sort of control to curb the problem.
“If you go to the fishermen here on the island they can get you whatever you want,” Lucio Conti, vice president for marine facilities at Atlantis Sanya, a resort located in China’s Hainan province, told Reuters.
“They can get you a whale shark, they can get you every species, endangered or not because there is no such control.”
Marine mammal scientist, Naomi Rose, told 101 East that she had never seen conditions as poor as those in China. But any attempts to stem damaging practices will struggle against the behemoth of public demand and big business.