Dolphin Liberation As A Conservation Tool: A Case Study From Korea
Captive dolphin shows are frequent targets of animal rights campaigners. Dolphins are widely recognized to be among the most intelligent animals on the planet, and the conditions that aquariums and parks keep them in is often insufficient for their welfare, to say the least. In South Korea, protests against captive dolphin shows recently led to the release of several dolphins into the wild, where they joined a small existing pod. The authors argue that this was an important step for conservation in Korea, even though only a small number of animals were released.
Some environmentalists and animal advocates have a dislike for single-species-focused conservation programs, including campaigns against dolphin shows. These programs, they say, often have minimal environmental benefit on their own, and usually focus on large, charismatic species. They argue that this approach ignores the multitude of less-impressive life forms that are vital to every ecosystem, and some advocates fear that these organisms are completely forgotten. These organizations argue that too much attention is paid to welfare, and not enough to conservation.
However, in this case, the authors of this review argue that single-species strategies can be valuable environmental tools and often have impacts beyond the species in focus. While the animals in question are not necessarily keystone species, they are flagship species: animals that can be used as a sort of “mascot” for environmental movements. The authors point out that, in this case, the controversy regarding captive dolphins in Korea seems to have led to a larger change in government policy.
Protests began in 2011, when it was discovered that the park in question – Jeju Aquatic Land – had captured several of its animals illegally, including five of the performing dolphins. A sixth member of the pod was transferred to Korea, where the mayor eventually ruled that he should be released into the wild.
Included in this decision were several environmental NGOs and Seoul Grand Park, a large zoo and museum complex. Meanwhile, in Jeju, the district court ruled that the five dolphins in Jeju Pacific Land must be released as well. This case eventually landed in the Korean Supreme Court, which ruled similarly.
The release of the dolphins in 2016 was widely heralded as a victory both in environmental circles and in the general media. However, the authors argue, it was mostly a welfare-related victory. The pod is still quite small, and the public support was due more to the sense of injustice towards the captive dolphins than a concern for the wild population. Following the release, Korea’s vice-minister of Oceans and Fisheries (MOF) announced a new focus on animal welfare. As a part of this new strategy, other captive animals would be released into the wild, including sea turtles and seals.
South Korea had also improved their anti-whaling regulations in 2015, no longer allowing marine parks to capture live animals in the wild. However, the environmental movement has not had as much success in extending these protections beyond Korean jurisdiction – live animals are still permitted to be brought into the country for exhibition and entertainment. Meanwhile, the construction of wind farms – which are believed to inhibit dolphin sonar – has also prevailed over environmental concerns, and the Korean military has also excluded the effects on dolphins from their environmental impact reports, likely to avoid public outcry.
Animal welfare is a popular stance to take, and generally can be accomplished without stepping on many toes. Conservation, however, often conflicts with the interests of powerful lobbies like the military or energy production. While the main goal of the Korean activists was a success, the scope was narrowed to the point that their victory could have little further impact. The authors of the paper note that, with the conversation focused solely on captive dolphins, the campaign ended up ignoring both other captive animals and the threats to wild dolphins.
As this case study illustrates quite strongly, animal advocates should not be afraid of using a flagship species to garner public support. Still, they must do so in a way that doesn’t limit the effect solely to that species.