Zoo close to winning whale licence

The Fisheries Department is prepared to give Safari World permission to import six beluga whales from Russia if it improves its aquarium facilities, senior official Manop Chaengkit said.

The zoo's plan to import the whales has sparked protests from wildlife activists who argue that keeping the marine mammals in captivity in tropical Thailand could kill them.

Mr Manop, director of the Fishery Management Bureau, said officials had inspected Safari World's aquarium to see whether it is suitable for the marine mammals which usually live in the Arctic Ocean.

The bureau also asked the zoo to detail what caused the deaths of beluga whales it previously had in its aquarium. Ten years ago, Safari World imported four young beluga whales from Russia. Only one is still alive.

Mr Manop said the bureau wanted to know if the zoo has implemented any measures to ensure the whales can adapt and survive.

''We have some recommendations regarding the water system. If the zoo agrees to improve it, we have no reason to object to an import licence,'' Mr Manop said.

A subcommittee will decide whether to grant the licence in two weeks.

The Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites) has added the beluga whale to its Annex II list, which includes species not necessarily threatened by extinction but whose trade must be controlled.

Russia is the only country allowed by the convention to hunt for the mammal under a quota.

This quota has rapidly decreased from 100 a year on average to only 30 as a result of declining numbers.

Nancy Gibson, chief executive of the Love Wildlife Foundation, said her group would continue to campaign against the zoo's plan to import the beluga whales.

She said there would be no compromise on the issue as keeping marine mammals in a zoo shortens their lifespan.

''On average, the lifespan of a captured beluga whale is less than 20 years, compared with 40 years in the wild,'' she said.

''People going to a zoo can't learn anything about its true nature. They only come to see them jumping and parading around a pool in sunglasses,'' Ms Gibson said.

She said her group would submit a protest letter to Safari World signed by more than 12,000 people if the zoo continues with its attempt to import the whales.

The group last month launched an online campaign called Free Beluga on the change.org website that has drawn thousands of supporters.

Tul Pinkaew, the website's campaign director, said strong support in social media has played a key role in the campaign. He hopes it will make the bureau consider the import permit carefully.

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Writer: Apinya Wipatayotin
Position: Reporter