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Thomas Cook Under Fire For Promoting Marine Resort In China

Written by Ted Thornhill – Daily Mail – 27th October 2018

Travel firm Thomas Cook has come under fire from animal rights campaigners for offering rooms in a Chinese hotel that has captive dolphins and beluga whales displayed at on-site attractions.

The dolphins have been sourced from a ‘drive fishing’ hunt in Japan described by a leading marine mammal scientist based in Washington DC as ‘horrific’ and ‘wildly cruel’. The same scientist described dolphin and beluga captivity as ‘fundamentally inhumane’.

The UK-based Dolphin Freedom pressure group has been calling upon Thomas Cook to cut its ties with the hotel – the Atlantis Sanya in Hainan province. It argues that the deal with this hotel renders the travel company’s recently trumpeted animal welfare policy regarding marine attractions, in which it announced a move away from them, as disingenuous.

Its campaign has included demonstrations outside Thomas Cook offices and the circulating of a #dropthedolphins hashtag on Twitter.

The $1.74billion (£1.5billion) Atlantis Sanya, which opened in May, has two major marine attractions – Dolphin Cay and The Lost Chambers Aquarium. The former is partially open, the latter fully open and free for all guests to visit, though animal interactions at both cost extra.

Its website describes Dolphin Cay as ‘a state-of-the-art dolphin education centre and interaction habitat, which brings enlightenment and education to visitors about one of the ocean’s most fascinating and memorable marine animals’.

Visitors can wade into waist-deep waters to meet the dolphins, have their photographs taken with them and will soon be able to scuba dive with the creatures and be propelled through the water by the dolphins on a boogie board.

The beluga whales can be found at The Lost Chambers attraction. Visitors are told they can ‘wade into waist-deep waters of the beluga whale’s lagoon’ where they’ll ‘be amazed how friendly [they] are, and how quickly they warm up to you!’

These are certain to be magical encounters for the visitors, but being kept in captivity like this is a horror show for the animals, according to Dr Naomi Rose, a marine mammal scientist for the Animal Welfare Institute.

She works with a coalition in China on the expansion of the dolphinarium industry there called China Cetacean Alliance, which monitors and investigates the 60 or so operational dolphinariums in the country.

She told MailOnline Travel that while she has not personally visited Atlantis Sanya, she is well aware of its facilities and explained why she believes keeping sea mammals in captivity is inhumane and why the way the resort’s dolphins were captured was cruel.

She said: ‘There is no evidence of cruelty associated with Atlantis Sanya resort or any other dolphinarium – cruelty requires intent and these facilities are not deliberately trying to harm their animals. They use training techniques that are generally considered humane, the same as most folks use to train their dogs – or toddlers for that matter.

‘This is possible because cetaceans are generally benign toward humans, even in the wild, although there are definitely exceptions to this rule – as [documentary] Blackfish showed.

‘The problem is that it’s fundamentally inhumane – which does not require intent – to keep large, wide-ranging, intelligent, socially complex species such as cetaceans, which are additionally wholly aquatic and thus have highly specialized physiological and ecological needs, in captive conditions.

‘This is actually just common sense – any species that normally roams dozens or even hundreds of kilometers a day, can dive hundreds of meters deep, and lives in groups of dozens or even hundreds of individuals cannot thrive in a tank only a few meters long, wide, and deep, with perhaps a half dozen to a dozen companions some of whom might not be compatible – and yet there is nowhere to escape social tensions.

‘Any cetacean tank, at Atlantis Sanya or anywhere else in the world, is a barren concrete box in which these sophisticated predators, who evolved in the ecologically and biodiverse ocean, are held for their whole lives, fed dead fish and deprived of anything resembling a natural life. That’s not humane.’

She said that while there are ‘better and worse captive cetacean facilities… even the best is not good enough – and in China they are nowhere near the best’ (see boxout for more on China’s animal welfare shortcomings).

MailOnline Travel has learned that China does not have a captive breeding program and that virtually all the whales and dolphins in captivity come from the wild.

Only a handful of the animals currently displayed in China are the result of captive breeding, out of hundreds of bottlenose dolphins, belugas, and orcas, as well as a handful of other species, such as Risso’s dolphins and false killer whales.

The Atlantis Sanya has 10 dolphins (six bottlenose dolphins and four Pacific white sided dolphins, according to Dolphin Freedom), captured along with all the others in China from the notorious driving hunt in Taiji, the only place in the world that is regularly making wild-caught specimens available for international trade. Everywhere else, captive breeding is the preferred source.

Dr Rose said: ‘The capture techniques in the drive fishery have been acknowledged by almost every professional body as wildly inhumane and yes, cruel. The trauma suffered by these social, intelligent animals in such a capture should hardly come as a surprise – even cattle are stressed by being stampeded and that’s how a drive starts.

‘The dolphins are stampeded by a wall of sound – highly traumatic for these acoustically-oriented animals – driven into a cove, and then most of the dolphins are slaughtered, with a few set aside for live trade. The ones set aside can see and hear the slaughter of their pods – these individuals can reasonably be assumed to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. They tend to live even shorter lives in captivity than those cetaceans which are caught with more humane methods or born in captivity. This is why the trade between Japan and China is so brisk – when dolphins die in Chinese dolphinariums, they go back to Taiji for more.’

The company that runs Atlantis Sanya, Kerzner, after being contacted by MailOnline Travel regarding this hunt, said that the way the dolphins were captured ‘does not meet our high standards’.

Belugas, meanwhile, said Dr Rose, are ‘even more unsuited to captivity than bottlenose dolphins’.

She continued: ‘They are larger – thus need more space – and they are specially adapted to habitats in the Arctic and sub-Arctic – so often found in freezing water – and therefore when held in a tank, they are suffering even more from cramped conditions and I think it’s safe to say that the water in their tanks is almost certainly too warm. At best it is to them probably summer temperature all year round, but I suspect in some cases the water is even warmer and totally unsuitable for their physiology.’

The belugas at the Atlantis Sanya have been captured in Russian waters (probably from the Sea of Okhotsk), according to Ceta Base, an organisation that keeps a record of marine mammals in human care. Kerzner said that their two whales were transported from another facility in Russia, where they had been living for eight years.

Dr Rose said that the capture techniques for belugas are ‘slightly less horrific in Russia, primarily because they don’t kill the unchosen animals’, but she insisted that they are still stressful.

Russia uses, she said, the method of capture ‘considered the most humane, wherein a purse seine net is deployed around a group of cetaceans that are herded together with chase boats‘. But this method still leaves pod members traumatized.

She added: ‘Those left behind may suffer permanent trauma from the capture and loss of their young. And the captured animals have a measurably higher risk of death for several weeks after the capture and any death, particularly from conditions that require a robust immune response – such as respiratory infections – during the first year after capture is usually attributed to a delayed response to the trauma.’

Concerns over dolphinariums and sea mammal captivity in general are held not just by Dr Rose, but throughout the scientific community and are well documented.

Many may be wondering, then, why Thomas Cook began offering rooms at the newly opened Atlantis Sanya to its customers in July this year – especially given that it has been increasingly vocal about animal welfare recently.

On February 7 it published a blog post entitled ‘Animal Welfare – One Year On’, penned by the Thomas Cook Group Chief Executive, Peter Fankhauser, that stressed the company’s newfound rigour regarding its promotion of controversial animal attractions.

In the blog Mr Fankhauser said: ‘Just over a year ago, Thomas Cook launched a new animal welfare policy which committed us to independently audit every animal excursion we sell – and to stop selling any which were not compliant with Abta Global Welfare Guidance for Animals in Tourism.

‘This simple but industry-leading policy has already made a big impact. We’ve now audited a third of all the attractions we offer, and we intend to audit the remaining 65 during the course of 2018. I have no doubt that we’re making a difference.’

What’s more in July this year the travel company began axing trips to captive killer whale attractions, including SeaWorld.

However, it seems that Thomas Cook’s animal welfare policy has yet to become completely coherent.

Dolphin Freedom showed MailOnline Travel an email it received from Thomas Cook’s group sustainability manager, David Ville, two days before the animal welfare blog was published on February 7, in which he made an assurance that his company would not work with any new traditional marine parks.

He wrote in the email on February 5: ‘I have added the following section into our new animal welfare blog – “We have already begun our work to challenge further expansion of captive whale and dolphin facilities. We have no intention of selling new traditional captive whale and dolphin attractions and call on governments around the world to reconsider their continued support of expanding existing facilities.”

He added: ‘Should be published on our website later this week.’

But this section was cut out of the blog that appeared two days later.

Mr Ville also told Dolphin Freedom in an email sent on September 18, which MailOnline Travel has seen, that Thomas Cook was going to audit Atlantis Sanya, ’in line with our animal welfare policy’. And a company spokesman announced in August that the resort would be audited. But another, unnamed, source at Thomas Cook claimed that no such audit was going to take place.

So just what is Thomas Cook’s animal welfare policy?

Whatever it is, it looks decidedly insincere to Dolphin Freedom – and not as good as Virgin’s, which states that the company ‘will not sell or promote any new attractions or hotels featuring captive whales and dolphins’.

Dolphin Freedom said: ‘If Thomas Cook really wants to be recognised for caring about animal welfare then it needs to follow Virgin’s lead and commit to not starting more contracts with any new dolphinaria that open.

‘Why don’t they sell more trips to see dolphins and whales in their natural habitat?’

It said that it had ‘very grave concerns’ over the Thomas Cook link with the Atlantis Sanya, adding: ‘The Atlantis stocked the beluga whales and dolphins through violent and brutal captures. Thomas Cook must’ve known this prior to accepting this contract.

‘The last dolphinarium was closed in the UK in 1993, yet UK tour companies have continued to profit from them abroad. It’s time for Thomas Cook to recognise the damage they are causing to marine animals.’

Some might surmise that a deal with the Atlantis Sanya was inevitable for Thomas Cook because Fosun, the company that runs the Atlantis Sanya, owns 12 per cent of Thomas Cook Group through shareholding and Thomas Cook China, a separate venture, is a joint venture between Thomas Cook and Fosun, 51 per cent owned by Fosun and 49 per cent by Thomas Cook.

Could this explain why Mr Ville’s blog addition didn’t make the final cut? Were Thomas Cook’s hands tied because of this corporate link with China?

An unnamed source at Thomas Cook told MailOnline Travel that was most definitely not the case and that it is under no influence from Fosun whatsoever in this regard.

When we pressed Thomas Cook on why the commitment expressed by Mr Ville was cut, it declined to comment.

Next we asked Thomas Cook to consider, in light of Dr Rose stating that ‘all dolphinariums are inhumane’ and that beluga whales are even more unsuited to captivity than dolphins, whether a newly forged association with the Atlantis Sanya was at odds with the animal welfare policy announced by its chairman in February.

Its first line of defence was that the Dolphin Cay attraction isn’t actually open yet, though some may see that as a moot point even if it was true.

A spokesman said: ‘We do not sell tickets to Dolphin Cay and have no intention to do so when it opens next year.’

However, while the attraction’s 1,800-seat theatre isn’t open yet, guests can definitely still pay to interact with the dolphins in it. MailOnline Travel called the hotel twice (to both Chinese and English-speaking staff members) and was told on both occasions this was possible right now if you book at the front desk (it’s not possible to book on the hotel’s website) and was given a price list (to touch the dolphins 488 yuan per person, to have pictures taken with the dolphins 428 yuan per person).

There are also Instagram videos and pictures showing guests with the hotel’s dolphins and TripAdvisor review references to it, including one from a Julia S, who wrote on September 8: ‘The swimming attractions of the hotel are amazing but the conditions of the marine animals was pretty sad, the dolphins especially. The tanks are concrete and there is little shade. I wouldn’t go here again. The hotel is great but the animal cruelty is just too much.’

The company’s second line of defence was to vaguely repeat the wording of its CEO’s blog from February.

The spokesperson added: ‘We are the first major holiday company to take action based upon a programme of independent audits, and the first to announce that we are going to stop selling excursions which keep Orcas in captivity. When we introduced our policy, we recognised that customer expectations were changing when it comes to animal attractions and we are committed to maintaining an animal welfare policy which is in line with our customers’ expectations of us.’

Except, it would seem, if there’s money to be made in China.

For Dolphin Freedom, Thomas Cook’s attempts to distance itself from the marine attraction aspect of the hotel by underscoring that it doesn’t directly sell tickets to it isn’t good enough.

It said: ‘Dolphin Cay is owned by Atlantis Sanya hotel and Thomas Cook sells tickets to the hotel which owns the dolphinarium. It is part of the same thing. The theme of the hotel is the sea and marine life and the novelty of the hotel is having all these captive marine animal attractions.’

The hotel, the dolphins and the belugas are certainly intertwined with the hotel.

For example, dolphin images appear on the hotel’s branding and the belugas are undoubtedly a star attraction. They frequently appear in social media posts from hotel guests – and what’s more, Thomas Cook has promoted them on Weibo, China’s version of Facebook, by posting a picture of newlyweds standing in front of their tank.

The plight of the Atlantis animals, of course, rests with the hotel’s owners.

If they did have a gigantic change of heart, Dr Rose said that the dolphins and whales could still be returned to the wild.

She added: ‘Any whale or dolphin captured within the past decade is a reasonable candidate for rehabilitation and return to the wild, as a matter of biology and ecology. They haven’t been in captivity too long and could be encouraged to remember how to hunt for live food and so on – several dolphins who were in concrete tanks for four to six years and trained to do tricks have been successfully returned to the wild in the past. But if they were returned to Taiji and the Sea of Okhotsk as things stand, they might just be captured again. So unless we stop the demand, there’s no point in returning them to the wild.

‘However, we would support placing them in a seaside sanctuary. I believe all captive cetaceans are candidates for that option. See for more info on the concept. That’s what I would like to see.’

However Kerzner, the company that owns Atlantis Sanya, has confirmed to MailOnline Travel that the dolphins and whales will remain where they are.

But it did say that the way the dolphins were caught was unacceptable.

It said: ‘We have been made aware that the dolphins at the Sanya-based resort came from Japanese waters, under a valid Cites permit. Our partners were responsible for the procurement and transportation of the animals as well as the design and construction of the marine mammal facilities.

‘As this collection neither follows our protocols nor meets our high standards, we now have a full commitment from our partners to not support any future cetacean collections from the wild.

‘The belugas came to the resort from an existing facility in Russia, also under a valid Cites permit. We also can confirm that the dolphins and belugas are in good health and receive professional care and enrichment by our experts. Likewise, the education centre and marine habitats are state-of-the-art, exceeding international marine life standards required by leading industry organizations World Association of Zoos and Aquariums and the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums. Our core business has always been to inspire people to care about the ocean, which we have been doing for over 20 years, making vital contributions to conservation and continued education initiatives.’

A Fosun spokesperson told MailOnline Travel: ‘As landlord, Fosun will follow the request of Kerzner and conduct the conservation of marine life worldwide with high standards.’


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