Response: Opinions on the Ethics of an Enclosure for Whale Sharks

Written by on September 18, 2013 in Other News, Sharks
A snorkeler swimming with a 6 meter long whale shark.

A snorkeler swimming with a 6 meter long whale shark. Photo credit: FGBNMS, NOAA.

East African Whale Shark Trust volunteer Steve Capone shares his opinions on the issue of keeping whale sharks in a sanctuary off the coast of Kenya. Click here to read the associated post and contribute to the discussion.

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I am now living in Kenya since 2001 and been a volunteer with the EAWST since its inception. I’ve swam with many whale sharks over the years and it is always an incredible experience. I have also been to many zoos and aquariums; in fact my first summer job was at the Miami Seaquarium. I have a deep love and respect for wildlife of all kinds. Humans have an ancient genetic interest and fascination of animals. Countless millions, probably billions of people have visited zoos and aquariums over the many years and decades. I think its safe to say that the majority of those people were not against animals in captivity and in fact were enlightened and inspired after their visit to those facilities. Seeing live animals up close allows the individual to become more engaged with them, more emotionally attached to them. You have to see that level of attachment before you can motivate people to take the political action to save these creatures. – “We conserve what we love. We cannot love something to which we cannot relate. We cannot love something that is abstract, distant or hidden, or else we love the mere fact that it IS abstract, distant or hidden. For the sake of conservation and getting the public excited about loving and protecting sharks, these whale sharks and the like must be taken into captivity to let people see them. There is no better way to incite that desire to conserve!” – Andy , Shark Biologist

Here in Kenya we have vast wild areas where animals can roam freely and hundreds of thousands of people visit each year to view these animals in the wild. However, Kenya also has many captive animal parks, Zoos, which have been conveniently overlooked by the opponents in this debate. Examples are Safari Walk (a zoo operated by the Kenya Wildlife Service), Haller Park, Giraffe Manor, Mamba Village and countless snake / reptile parks.

There are also many fenced in conservation areas such as Aberdares Nat’l Park, Tsavo West Rhino Sanctuary, Mwaluganje Elephant Sanctuary, Sweetwaters Chimpanzee Sanctuary and countless private conservancies and ranches. These fenced in conservation areas inhibit ancient wildlife migration routes and disrupt their instinctive need for movement BUT the fencing is considered necessary for conservation efforts. How can our opponents criticize us when the precedent for fencing in wild free animals was set long ago worldwide and most notably in Kenya? How can someone argue that keeping a whale shark in the ocean in a seaquarium is not in its natural habitat? Is the rhino in his sanctuary in his natural habitat in the heart of the bush in Tsavo West? This argument defies any logical debate.

Also overlooked by our opposition are the benefits to the local community through revenue created from the project. These figures have been well documented, 50% of the proceeds will go into ongoing and new marine conservation initiatives and back to the community. Our opposition labels this as ‘false promises’ and justification for the project. We call it philanthropy and progressive, innovative thinking.

In my opinion the only reason that this issue has gotten this far is because of the aesthetic beauty of the whale shark. It is a majestic, mysterious, curious, beautiful awe- inspiring creature. However, if we were talking about making a stonefish sanctuary then I doubt any of the opponents would have uttered a word.

The Waa Whale Shark Sanctuary project is absolutely essential to the conservation of whale sharks in Kenya. This is because the threat of the Chinese who are coming to build the new port in Lamu will figure out that they can make big money by killing whale sharks for their fins. It is legal to kill a whale shark in Kenya, it only has to be reported to the fisheries dept. In fact if the local fishermen knew of this potential then the slaughter would be swift and relentless. A recent study (Norman ) valued a single whale shark fin at over $50,000! Look at the elephant and rhino poaching epidemic which is fuelled exclusively by demand from China and Asia. These animals are protected by thousands of armed rangers with millions of dollars in support. Who will protect the whale sharks…the EAWST! Through the lobbying of the EAWST the whale shark was included in the new wildlife bill to be protected, but no thanks or recognition of this has been acknowledged. This potential disaster of seeing our whale sharks murdered for rich

Asians to enjoy their shark fin soup will not happen in our backyard. The EAWST and Seaquarium Ltd. are the only groups to EVER address the welfare of whale sharks in Kenya and will continue to do so with more diligence than ever before. The minority of hardline, anti-captive animal activists will not succeed in their zealous, selfish and shortsighted campaign.

“First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”
– Mahatma Gandhi

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To contribute to the whale shark enclosure discussion, click here!

About the Author

About the Author: Emily Tripp is the Publisher and Editor of MarineScienceToday.com. She holds marine science and biology degrees from the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science and a Master of Advanced Studies degree in Marine Biodiversity and Conservation from Scripps Institution of Oceanography. When she's not writing about marine science, she's probably running around outside or playing with her dog. .

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  1. Linzi says:

    Hey Steve And emily. thanks for your article. However I don’t think it changes my opinion. You write about what are the obvious benefits to this project which I don’t deny are benefits. But they are at the expense of the freedom of one of the largest mammals in the world. The sanctuary is proportionally a lot smaller than any animal in a zoo or aquarium because the whaleshark natural habitat is so large! They travel the whole world in the ocean within a year. It would be like putting a lion in a chicken farm coop and even If chickens were endangered it would still be cruel to chickens let alone lions. Moreover, the amount of money you need to raise for the sanctuary building and running the whaleshark project could already kick start conservation by traditional methods such as education and building awareness. There are many ways to create awareness without charging people to visit a whaleshark sanctuary… Such as making documentaries which would have a far bigger audience than those that will have the opportunity to visit the waa sanctuary since even someone across the world would be able to watch it and not need to come to kenya. Sure it would mean a lot of effort,expertise and skill in order to inspire people to take action and conserve the whaleshark but then again this waa sanctuary also does require a whole lot of effort, expertise and skill too. Therefore there is no justification for capturing a whaleshark in order to create awareness, promote conservation and save the whaleshark. Either way you approach conservation there will still be whaleshark fishing, you cannot guarantee all whalesharks will be saved. You cannot guarantee that the whaleshark you will capture will survive either! This project risks possible failure. And that is a big risk to take. Lastly in response, the animals in Tsavo and Aberdares and KWS zoo etc. are there because they have nowhere else to go since humans live everywhere else OR they are orphanages. And a stone fish is a lot smaller than a whaleshark!

  2. Emily says:

    Hi Linzi – Thanks for your comment. There’s definitely a lot of risk involved in a project like this so I guess we’ll just have to wait to see what happens! One thing to keep in mind (not that it should change your opinion) is that whale sharks are not mammals; they’re fish — the largest fish in the ocean! Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  3. steve capone says:

    Dear Linzi,
    The Whale Shark is NOT a mammal! This is a common misunderstanding and inexcusable to make in a public forum. Also whale sharks do not ‘travel the world’ as you say. Some individuals travel short distances others longer distances (EAWST has done extensive satellite tagging research on the local kenyan whale shark migration patterns, the results of which are on the website).
    in August this year, ZDF, Germany’s biggest broadcast company, along with EAWST produced a documentary ‘Saving the Gentle Giants’ which was aired all over Europe to millions of viewers. There are many other documantaries which have been produced by EAWST and posted online as well. All of this information and so much more is available online! The conservation efforts and education campaigns of the EAWST are also well documented over the last 6 years.

    Your arguments are based on emotion and your personal beliefs. If you desire to enter into a public debate it is recommended that you do so using facts and logical arguments based on some level of research of such topics.

    It is important to keep in mind that at this point in humankind’s history there are no ‘right’ answers / solutions in conservation. Humans have encroached on animals habitat on land AND equally in our oceans. Sometimes a less than desirable action is needed in an urgent situation and it is those brave enough to face criticism, adversity, ignorrance and hypocricy that will forge the way forward and make a difference.

  4. All great truth passes through 3 stages.
    First it is ridiculed. Secondly it is violently opposed.
    Thirdly, it is accepted as self-evident.
    Arthur Schopenhauer 1788-1860

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