South Seas dolphins face slaughter for their teeth – or life in captivity
Islanders who turned sea red with blood now helping controversial sea lion tamer put dolphins on planes bound for Middle
In a ramshackle fishing village on the outskirts of Honiara, Robert Satu holds up a necklace made of dolphin teeth. Up to 20 dolphins were killed to make it, he estimates, draping the heavy ceremonial jewellery around his neck.
‘We cut them like this,’ he says, drawing his hand across his throat, indicating how the animals are decapitated and the teeth prised out. During the slaughter, he says, the sea turns crimson.
While the rest of the world sees dolphins as spirited creatures to be admired and cherished, the people of the Solomon Islands, an impoverished nation in the South Pacific, are not so sentimental. Every year, from December to March, men living in remote villages in Malaita province use dug-out canoes and boats to hunt dolphins.
Far out to sea, they attract the creatures by banging stones under water. Pods – as many as 200 dolphins – are herded towards the shore where the animals panic, driving their muzzles into the sand and suffocating. Villagers eat the meat but it is the teeth of certain species, particularly the spinner, that are most prized, used for special financial transactions such as paying dowries or ‘bride price’.
The Malaitans are not the only people who see dolphins as a valuable commodity. Two hours by boat from the capital Honiara, on Gavutu Island, one man controversially claims to be working to save dolphins from the traditional hunts by selling them to aquariums.
The 40-acre island, surrounded by coral reefs teeming with life, has been leased by Chris Porter, 37, a former sea lion trainer from Vancouver, who established a dolphin export business in 2003. There was such an outcry over his first shipment of dolphins to a theme park in Mexico – nine of the mammals died soon after arrival – that Porter’s activities were suspended amid fears that international condemnation of the trade would bring a boycott on the Solomon Islands’ tuna fishing industry.
Last year the islands’ government overturned the ban and he is back in business, employing 37 islanders in his burgeoning empire. Last October he sent a second shipment of 28 wild dolphins to Dubai. The animals were put on a barge, settled on mattress-like material, draped with wet cloths and transported from Gavutu to Honiara’s domestic air terminal – closed for the occasion in case animal rights protesters tried to get near.
The dolphins were put into tanks on two chartered DC-10s for the 30-hour trip to Dubai. In September they are due to go on show in an aquarium.
Sitting in the sunshine on a floating wooden pontoon criss-crossing the pens containing his latest batch of captured dolphins – three adults and a calf – Porter is unperturbed by the criticism. He says: ‘If I opened the pens and took them out to the open sea, they’d want to come back again. They’re fed, they’re happy and they are treated respectfully.’
He says he is showing islanders a way to use dolphins that is better for the animals and for the economy. His partner, Robert Satu, has certainly embraced the message. He has just bought a large fishing boat with his share of the proceeds of the Dubai shipment and says he will never kill another dolphin again. ‘For me and my family, this is very good fortune,’ says Satu, a father of three.
The Solomon Islands’ government is unrepentant about the dolphin trade. Anyone querying its policy is handed a four-page memorandum that explains the government’s stance – only 80 dolphins a year will be permitted to be exported from a plentiful population of two unendangered species – the Indian Ocean bottlenose dolphin and the bottlenose dolphin.
At his Honiara office, Dr Christian Ramofafia, permanent secretary in the Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources, says he is aware of the outrage of animal welfare groups. ‘This is a relatively poor country and the export of dolphins contributes to the revenue that is important to supplement the livelihood of many of our rural people,’ he says. He says a government delegation went to Dubai to check on the health of the 28 dolphins and insists that they are all in good shape.
Such backing has given Porter a certain swagger and he has grandiose plans for Gavutu. He wants to build a resort where tourists can have ‘unlimited time’ with the dolphins. He walks around the former Second World War Japanese seaplane base, describing overwater bungalows he will build on one side, a dive centre and backpacker resort on the other and a luxury hotel in the middle.
At present, there is only a half-finished bar and dining hall and a few huts for the workers who feed the dolphins and acclimatise them to human touch. Porter says Gavutu will become an education and research centre.
Animal activists claim dozens of dolphins have died since Porter’s Marine Mammal Education Centre first began operating, some because they were fed bad fish, others through hunger when a cyclone prevented anyone getting to the island to feed them. Some spotted dolphins apparently pined to death.
Porter is remarkably honest about these disasters – fish that had been partially defrosted because of electricity blackouts were refrozen and fed to the dolphins, with tragic results. ‘We did have spotted dolphins and they didn’t adapt to captivity.’ During the Dubai transfer, carcasses of dead dolphins photographed by the side of the road near Honiara airport were printed in the media, alleged to have come from his shipment. Porter says it was part of a dirty tricks campaign against him. ‘Those were not our dolphins. All of our dolphins are microchipped so they are easily identifiable.’ He says he ploughs profits – a live dolphin can fetch up to £50,000 – back into his business.
But some, such as activist Lawrence Maliki, say he exploits locals. Maliki has teamed up with the Earth Island Institute of San Francisco, an animal welfare group, to fight Porter’s operation. ‘He’s paying hunters a pittance for the dolphins and then selling them on at big prices. These animals are being kept in prisons for the entertainment of rich people instead of being free. I’d like to see Porter exported from the Solomons, the way he’s exporting our dolphins.’
Sue Arnold, of Australians for Animals, claims the mammals that survive capture are kept in unhygienic and unnatural conditions in sea pens on Gavutu where it is hard for people to check on their health before they are transported abroad. ‘The tragedy is that the Solomons desperately need sustainable industries to help the islanders economically and bring them respect, not international condemnation,’ she says.
‘Porter is exploiting this situation, pure and simple,’ she adds. Referring to the dolphin hunts, she says: ‘Nobody wants dead dolphins and nobody wants a trade in dolphins. They belong in the ocean, that’s the bottom line.’
Back on Gavutu the dolphins are being put through another training session. They brush playfully against Porter and his staff, getting fish as treats, unaware that they are at the centre of a continuing controversy.