Over the past five years, the popularity of marine parks with captive orcas in the US has been quickly crumbling away after decades of cramped tanks and unethical treatment. But as China's economy enjoys its time in the Sun, the ever-growing middle class is fueling a massive boom in the captive orca park industry.
According to a report by the China Cetacean Alliance, “the ocean theme park industry is expanding rapidly in China.” They found that 250 wild-caught cetaceans were transported to Chinese theme parks between 2010 and 2015. It’s thought there are more than 500 cetaceans, including orcas and bottlenose dolphins, kept in captivity.
China currently has 44 marine theme parks operating, with 18 more scheduled to open, USA Today reports. The vast majority of these facilities contain shows where dolphins and whales perform circus tricks, much like the infamous SeaWorld shows that have now ceased.
This month, Chimelong Group, one of the China’s biggest amusement park companies, announced the country’s first captive orca breeding program, established at the group’s biggest park, Chimelong Ocean Kingdom. The park currently holds nine orcas, all of which were caught in Russian waters.
Also this month, Zhonghong Group – a Chinese leisure and tourism company – bought a 21 percent share of SeaWorld Entertainment Inc. Along with the deal, SeaWorld will offer support for the company to develop theme parks in China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau.
Much like the previous era of orca parks, claims are being made that this is all being done in the name of conservation. "Chimelong has accumulated more than 20 years of experience with endangered animal conservation and their international team of professional strength has made a lot of outstanding achievements," Meng Xianlin, from the Endangered Species Import and Export Management Office of China, said on the Chimelong website. "A highly responsible attitude towards animal conservation has been fully endorsed by the international animal conservation community.”
No doubt largely thanks to the 2013 documentary Blackfish, most of the world seems to have learned its lesson when it comes to these marine parks housing large and highly intelligent marine mammals. This is best symbolized by SeaWorld ending both its captive orca breeding programs and live killer whale shows in the US.
China seems to be going against the tide with its attitude. Unfortunately, conservationists believe this is “just a phase” China needs to get through before it sees the light.
“They are going through a learning curve that is not necessary and completely outdated — and they’re taking an enormous risk,” Naomi Rose, marine mammal scientist with the Animal Welfare Institute in Washington, D.C., told USA Today. “A trainer will be injured or killed sooner or later. It’d be sad because it’s totally avoidable.”