Eco leaders strategize opposition to dolphin, animal captivity in Phuket

Posted on August 25, 2014


A coordinating meeting was held on August 20 to bring together local, national and regional groups campaigning against Phuket’s planned “dolphinarium” which is set to open later this year, near the Phuket Zoo on Soi Palai in Chalong.

The growing movement is campaigning and lobbying against not only the controversial Phuket attraction, but any venue that will make captive, creatures that should, campaigners strongly believe, be left to thrive in their natural environment.

Held at the JW Marriot resort in Mai Khao, Wednesday’s meeting followed successful screenings on August 14 of The Cove (2009), at Central Festival Phuket and before 250 students at The Prince of Songkla University (PSU). The film highlights the barbarism of the killing and selling of dolphins to satisfy the fish market and stock the various dolphin shows around the world.

Chairing the meeting were several local and regional key players, including local environmental organization SEEK representatives Nick Anthony and Sean Panton, who also wears the hat of CSR Director at JW Marriot, as well as Dr Chantinee Boonchai, environmental lecturer at the Prince of Songkhla University Phuket; with guest Nancy Gibson, CEO of the Love Wildlife Foundation (Bangkok) and other local leaders, media, activists and business reps also in attendance.


As a preamble, local eco businessman and activist, John Gray of John Gray’s Sea Canoe presented a video of a successful model dolphin tourism project in Puerto Princessa of the Philippines. Established by Mr Edward Hagedorn, the project allows dolphins to stay in their natural habitat and encouraged low price expanded tourism enlisting the support of local fisherman who were supplied with mobile phones.

This initiative set the scene for a long term potential strategy for the eco-tourism market which gave both economic benefits and stressed the importance of nature, and which may prove to be a model solution for Phuket.

Mr Gray, a respected and pioneering eco-tourism operator and campaigner in the greater Phang Nga Bay area as well as Vietnam, challenged the notion that the new dolphin-show will be within “legal bounds”.

“I see a lot of chinks in the armor. Water quality – where are they getting their water from? It’s two kilometres from the sea, and a very small tank inside, I have my doubts and see a lot of problems that they [the operators] will need to address, especially in the market,” he said.

Sean Panton agrees.

“If this [dolphinarium] goes through, it’s going to Phuket back 20 years. Over the years a lot of hard work has gone into establishing our reputation for marine tourism. We’ve had our challenges, but the Mai Khao Marine Turtle Foundation is a good example [for marine conservation initiatives in Phuket].

“We’ve been working for 13 years to protect and raise awareness of turtles along with the Phuket Marine Biology Centre’s Endangered Species Unit. And as dolphins are an endangered species in Thailand, it baffles me how an outside company can come in and run a [tourism and entertainment] facility with endangered species.”

Nancy Gibson echoed Sean’s sentiments: “I think it’s a horrrible thing. It [dolphins in captivity] is not something we need in Thailand. It’s something we’ve fought against for several years now.

“I’m surprised we’re even having to face such a project popping up in the middle of a major tourist destination that is supposed to be ‘eco friendly’.

Asked what approach Phuket should take to address tourists who might come to Phuket to participate shows that depend on animal captivity, Nancy was stern.

“To be honest, I don’t think tourists are coming to Phuket for this… just to watch dolphins jump through hoops or wear silly hats. They’re not getting any educational experience out of it. There are wild dolphins here in Thailand, and they [tourists] can see them in the wild. It’s much more wonderful experience to see dolphins in the wild.”

Within the broader context of community economic wellbeing and sustainability, the meeting focused solely on the impending possibility and likelihood of the show opening .

The group became aware of the overseas owner who already owns Dolphin Way and saw this as a commercial response to the emerging Eastern European and Chinese markets. The group is steadfast in its believe that this facility will damage the local fishing industry, damage the image of the island and damage local tourism.

The group is well aware of the popularity of dolphin shows (shades of Flipper) particularly amongst the young, but argues that the opposite is required in education (love of nature) not restriction of a sensitive creature to a tank in which they have to live and perform.

The group was informed that animal welfare legislation is under review in Thailand and that it is the Department of Fisheries who have the responsibility of ensuring compliance of premises standards and the source of any dolphin purchase. The group is also aware that no public scrutiny can take place as a security fence has been placed around the site.

The group outlined the current mobilization of opposition which included petition of some 250 students of PSU to the Governor, the support of the IUCN, 13,000 names on a Campaign for Change organized by Sea Sheppard and many letters of support from school, community groups and businesses.

The meeting concluded with a unanimous determination to conduct a strong public campaign, engage students, businesses and the social media, with attendees unified in their commitment to building a strong eco-tourism industry in the interest of a sustainable Phuket that is internationally recognised for both quality of tourism delivery and a commitment to international best practice.

Attending the meeting as an independent observer was Dr Peter Harris of the Asia Pacific Environment Network, who had his provided some inspirational insight.

“The debate regarding the opening of a Dolphinarium is more than just a debate on making tourist dollars out of a popular captive creature zoo. It is a discussion on the future of the island itself. There is no doubt that the community needs to expand its economic base and recent market trends have shown growth from Eastern Europe and Asia.

“This is a debate about whether this island can be sustainable, compassionate and caring and a beacon to the world. The island is endowed with much beauty, charming people and a cultural way of life. The envy of man. The island can be a center that is known for the way in which it supports the land and the sea and all the creatures it. That is very attractive indeed,” he said.

As for the next step, obbyists and activists will be quite busy in the coming months as the paperwork to the new attraction is processed in preparation for the import of the dolphins.

And as for what we residents and tourists in Phuket can do to make a difference, John Gray offers the most obvious and practical solution for those who truly understand the plight of dolphins and the underlying agenda of the multi-billion dollar trade: “Total boycott … Should it open, nobody should go there,” he concluded.

This story will be published in The Phuket News in print on August 29, to coincide with the start of the annual “Dolphin Hunting Season” in Japan on September 1. For more information about the coming slaughter, and what you can do to make a stand, be sure to pick up a copy.


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