Whale Shark Zoo!

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Making strides in whale shark conservation? Or just plain immoral and misguided?

According to an article in the Daily Nation, an independent Kenyan newspaper, tourists will soon be able to swim with whale sharks in an enclosure constructed by the East African Whale Shark Trust (EAWST) in Waa, located between Diani and Mombasa on the South Coast of Kenya. Two whale sharks will be kept in a 500 metre long, 17 metre deep enclosure, and for US$100, tourists can swim with these sharks. The news of the ‘marine zoo’ created huge upheaval among marine conservationists around the world.

The EAWST programme will supposedly generate revenue from tourism that can be reinvested in the conservation of whale sharks through awareness campaigns and the establishing of a research centre and a potential breeding programme. While this endeavour by the EAWST is with seemingly good intentions, it might be a bit misguided; some would even say cruel. The whale sharks will be caught by the tail with a ‘tail-rope’, and once caught, four 15 kg buoys will be placed in the water to keep the shark from swimming away. When it tires it will fall into a state of ‘catatonic immobility’. Once in a trance-like state, a harness will be placed around the shark and it will be dragged into the sanctuary.

The EAWST plans to place two juvenile whale sharks in the enclosure by November this year. Volker Bassen, director of EAWST, has stated that they will then rotate the fish every six months and replace the two sharks with two freshly caught ones ‘to ensure they do not spend their lives in captivity and to provide an opportunity for observation of several different animals.’ According to Bassen, the threat to whale sharks has increased over the years, resulting in a dramatic decline in the population of whale sharks off the coast of Kenya as they are killed for their fins and livers. But does that justify a project of this nature?

Is a whale shark in this kind of captivity better than a dead whale shark poached for its fins? Reportedly, the EAWST will start a programme to‘re-educate’ local fishermen on environmentally friendly fishing methods. It is unclear how the captive whale sharks will add to the education of local fishermen, though. While in the ‘sanctuary’ the whale sharks will be protected from poachers but the plan is to rotate them every six months; so what is to prevent the sharks from being ‘finned’ once they are released? Surely tagging and monitoring the whale sharks will prove far more effective if the aim is to protect them from poaching…


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