SHANGHAI — Xu Qianwen was delighted when her employer took her to see a live orca show at the city’s hottest new theme park, Haichang Ocean Park, in June. But a few days later, the 27-year-old made a shocking discovery.
“I read online that there is a lot of cruelty behind the performances,” says Xu. “I started wondering if the whales are really willing to perform those tricks.”
Many young Chinese are experiencing similar revelations as animal welfare groups have stepped up campaigns designed to turn the tide of public opinion against the country’s booming ocean-themed tourism industry.
Dozens of marine parks similar in style to SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment in the United States have opened across China over the past few years, with nine new locations — including Shanghai’s Haichang — launching in 2018 alone. These parks have proved hugely popular among Chinese consumers, and visitor numbers reached 81 million last year, an 18% year-over-year increase, according to data from consulting firm Zhiyan.
Developers like Haichang Ocean Park Holdings, the owner of the park in Shanghai, have thrived by presenting their resorts as a fun and educational day out for middle-class families. In addition to a roller coaster, rapids ride, and fake volcano, Haichang offers visitors up-close encounters with dozens of cetaceans — dolphins, porpoises, and whales — including daily performances by four killer whales in a conch-shaped amphitheater.
A GIF shows two killer whales performing at Haichang Ocean Park in Shanghai, March 18, 2019. Image from IC, re-edited by Sixth Tone
The park says these shows help popularize marine science and fund conservation research. It even hosted an episode of the popular reality TV show “Go Fighting!”, which was based around the theme “protecting the ocean.”
But animal welfare campaigners argue that the parks’ true impact on the planet’s cetaceans is far darker. “They (the parks) are running in the opposite direction from science and misleading visitors,” says Zheng Yu, a wildlife campaign manager for the China office of nonprofit World Animal Protection.
Opposition to holding cetaceans in confinement has been increasing across the world as evidence grows that captive animals experience chronic stress and are more likely to die young than those in the wild. This is especially true of orcas, which are highly social animals that can typically swim up to 160 kilometers per day in the wild.
SeaWorld was rocked by a large consumer backlash after the 2013 documentary “Blackfish” criticized the company’s treatment of orcas, which eventually forced it to announce a phaseout of live orca shows at its parks. But conditions inside most Chinese parks are even worse, according to Naomi Rose, a marine mammal scientist at the nonprofit Animal Welfare Institute.
“It is even worse than at SeaWorld, because the staff are less experienced at caring for orcas,” says Rose. “This gives me serious cause for concern about the welfare of the animals and the safety of the trainers.”
When Rose visited Haichang in June, she was shocked by the shallow, sun-drenched Risso’s dolphin enclosure, as the animals prefer deeper, offshore waters. “It’s difficult to see them surviving long in those circumstances,” she says.
The orcas, meanwhile, showed clear signs of abnormal behavior, according to Rose. She witnessed one whale swallow an entire length of rope and then vomit up its stomach contents. “This behavior was very disturbing,” she says. “It was equivalent to bulimic behavior in humans.”
Haichang Ocean Park Holdings did not respond to Sixth Tone’s request for comment by time of publication.
Domestic campaigners have been warning about the poor conditions inside China’s parks for years, but now international groups are also paying attention due to the massive growth of the Chinese marine parks industry. The number of captive cetaceans in China has more than doubled to 1,001 since 2015, according to the China Cetacean Alliance (CCA), a campaign group.
Chinese demand for wild whales has become so huge that it is driving a murky global trade in rare marine mammals. In 2018, it emerged that four Russian firms were holding nearly 100 whales — including several orcas — in a so-called whale jail near Vladivostok, ready to export them to China.
If China’s parks continue to import large numbers of cetaceans, it could have a devastating effect on orca populations around the world, according to Rose. “Removing young orcas does not just traumatize them — it traumatizes their families that are left behind,” says Rose. Killer whales remain endangered in parts of the U.S., because the communities “simply never recovered” from the large number of removals that took place in the 1960s and 1970s, she adds.
Animal welfare groups hope to prevent this by cutting off Chinese demand at the source. They are focusing their efforts on fostering a “Blackfish”-style consumer boycott of marine parks across the country. “We hope that once people are aware of the problems, they will see that their entertainment is being purchased at far too high a cost to the animals,” says Rose.
This could be an uphill battle at first. “Blackfish” never made as big a splash in China, while animal welfare groups have traditionally focused on other issues, such as wildlife protection and the country’s black market for dog meat. But there are signs that consumers are starting to pay attention.
When the CCA posted footage of the malnourished orca captured by Rose’s team on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like social media platform, the video was shared over 5,800 times.
Last year, the Sun Asia Ocean World park in the northeastern city of Dalian was forced to apologize after a video showing trainers putting lipstick on a beluga whale sparked outrage among users of video sharing app Douyin, known as TikTok outside of China.
And there are hopes that the new documentary “Long Gone Wild”, released in July, could raise awareness to a new level. The feature, styled as a sequel to “Blackfish”, partially focuses on China’s marine parks and their relationship with Russian whalers. A trailer featuring Rose received more than 19 million views on Miaopai, a Chinese video sharing site.
Tourists look at a beluga whale at Haichang Ocean Park in Shanghai, March 6, 2019. IC
Rose hopes that the growing grassroots opposition to cetacean captivity will convince Chinese authorities to tighten park regulations. In recent years, several governments — including those of Canada, India, and the U.S. state of California — have banned live cetacean shows. Cetaceans are listed as a protected species in China, and parks wishing to import them are required to obtain permits from the Ministry of Agriculture and demonstrate that their facilities, finances, and employee training meet government standards.
But animal welfare organizations worry that the industrial standards regulating China’s marine parks prioritize the development of the industry over conservation. Multiple executives from several marine parks are listed as vice presidents and council members on the National Aquatic Wildlife Conservation Association, a government organization responsible for drafting several standards for marine animal captivity and training.
Nevertheless, the increased pressure from activists is having an impact on the parks. In the wake of the whale jail scandal, the Russian government ordered the release of the whales in April. It also looked to close a legal loophole allowing firms to export cetaceans for “cultural” reasons. “It might be more difficult for them (Chinese parks) to obtain animals now, but the possibility of purchasing through the black market is not excluded,” a spokesperson for the CCA tells Sixth Tone.
A trainer kisses a beluga whale during its last performance before being sent to a sanctuary in Iceland in Changfeng Ocean Park, Shanghai, Feb. 28, 2019. Jiang Xiaowei/IC
Changfeng Ocean Park in Shanghai, which is owned by the British tourism group Merlin Entertainments, announced in June that it would become the first marine park in China to stop hosting live cetacean shows. It has also relocated two of its beluga whales to a sanctuary in Iceland.
Animal welfare groups praised Changfeng for these moves, but are pessimistic about other marine parks following its example. “There remains a huge knowledge gap between this company and domestic marine park operators,” the CCA spokesperson says.
Instead, campaigners are placing their faith in younger consumers who are more motivated by animal welfare issues. In a 2018 survey by the World Animal Protection, 80% of Chinese millennials said they were willing to pay higher prices for animal-friendly tourist activities. There has also been a significant drop in the number of Chinese tourists choosing to ride elephants in Thailand.
“We have a lot of work to do, but I truly believe that we can end the practice of displaying captive cetaceans in China,” says Rose.
Editor: Dominic Morgan.
(Header image: A killer whale performs at Haichang Ocean Park in Shanghai, Nov. 16, 2018. Ren Yuming/IC)