Why are we even surprised at this point?
"Hurley also spoke about the importance of monitoring wild dolphin populations and stated that there is a time and place when collecting these animals is appropriate. For instance, the Chinese river dolphin, now extinct, could have been saved if some were collected and protected in marine facilities. He emphasized that humane collection is critical to preservation."
No. There’s never an acceptable time to take them captive. For example, the Maui’s dolphin has a populations of around 50 or so animals and are critically endangered. Taking them into captivity when we have no idea how to care for them and can barely cope with caring for more hardy species such as bottlenoses would doom the species.
And for the record? Baiji were taken into captivity for a breeding program. Do you know what happened? The program failed dismally. All but one died before they even hit three years in captivity. That’s what happens when you take an animal you have absolutely no knowledge of and try to keep it captive. Qi Qi died in 2002 as the last captive Baiji, after nearly 23 years captive, spending all of that time alone. Four years later, the Baiji was declared extinct.
In fact, it’s very possible that the removal of individuals in a population that was thought to number only 120 animals in 1991 actively contributed to the decline of the species. At least two of the animals captured have been described as “sexually mature”, and the removal of mature females in particular could be devastating to such a small population. Not a single Baiji was ever born in captivity, so all the “captive breeding program” managed to accomplish was endangering the species further.
While captivity provided a vital last resort and haven for the California Condor, capturing more complex animals such as cetaceans with such vast environmental and social needs in an effort to “save” them is much more liable to damage the existing populations than preserve them. Furthermore, if such a breeding program was established and became successful, what are we supposed to do with the offspring? They won’t have any idea how to survive in the wild thanks to being raised in a tank, and will be far too familiar with humans.
To me, this attitude of “we can protect them better in a glass tank” is extremely worrying. In-situ conservation efforts should always be at the forefront of animal protection, and this idea of rescuing animals by scooping them up and keeping them in a completely unfit environment is absolutely bizarre. Is this what Seaworld is teaching people?
A few more facts about Qi Qi -
He was housed at the Wuhan Institute of Hydrobiology where the climate is extremely cold in the winter and unbearably hot in the summer. Qi Qi was kept in a single tank filled with unfiltered tap water in which temperatures fluctuated from freezing to oven-like. He was often found barely moving and in obvious discomfort, covered in purple rashes. Staff didn’t even know what to feed him at first, offering him everything from bread to fruit, pork, and beef. Even when he was eventually given fish he only ate sparingly.
They performed a lot of experiments on him, and he was masturbated with electrodes so often that he would roll over and present his penis to anyone who walked past his tank (though none of the samples were preserved). Despite his terrible living conditions staff refused to send him to another facility as he was the “jewel in their crown”. Qi Qi eventually died in 2002 from diabetes, stomach problems and old age.
Even though the WIH refused to give Qi Qi up, how many western facilities donated money, equipment, knowledge or staff to try to improve his quality of life - none.
Staff did try to catch him some company. Over the years they caught; a young male named Rong Rong who soon froze to death. Another male named Lian Lian who died after two months and a 5-6 year old female named Zhen Zhen who died two years later after she ate rusting chunks of iron that fell into the pool. Two other young dolphins named Su Su and Jiang Jiang that were captured and held in holding pens only lasted a few weeks.
Efforts to set up a captive breeding Baiji breeding program at the Oxbow lake failed after a sexually mature female was captured in late 1995, but died after half a year in 1996, when finless porpoise, which were also added to the lake, out competed her for fish and she drowned after becoming entangled in nets trying to escape.
But really, SeaWorld are the last people who should be talking about how great a captive breeding program would have been because they worked on the failed plans to set one up!.
SeaWorld’s Jim McBain went to the Pentagon and got approval for the US Navy to give the Chinese researchers the blueprints for their seapens (so the same pens could be set up for an ex situ Baiji breeding project in a section of the Yangtze river). However this was around 2001 and there were only around 20 animals left at this point, so it was too little too late.
SeaWorld also laid on a save the Baiji conference for cetacean experts from around the world in late 2005 at SW San Diego. They didn’t donate any money, provide any support, equipment or personnel. They did, however, provide free catering for the event.
SeaWorld did eventually send a member of staff along to work on the Baiji survey in 2006, but that was two years after the last confirmed sighting of a living animal, so they knew it was too late to do anything for the species.
(And a little fyi - Enoshima Aquarium, ‘donated’ $2 million to the baiji captive breeding project, but in exchange demanded that the first Baiji caught would be sent to Enoshima as their “prime attraction”. It was never about conservation, just making money. Luckily the plan was met with opposition and ultimately never happened)
Even if you’re a pro cap, you have to admit that with their huge resources, power, influence and money, SeaWorld could have done a lot more.
Seriously, SeaWorld and all other marine parks had ample opportunities to help set up an ex situ viable breeding population at the Tian’e Zhou lake. The people running the baiji project literally begged for grant money for years and didn’t even get any money to even fund a population survey until it was too late, even though the estimated total cost for capture, trans-locating animals, infrastructure and daily operating budgets was less than $1 million US. SeaWorld could have funded the entire project themselves ten times over.
By criticizing the lack of conservation action for the baiji, SeaWorld are criticizing themselves.