An international marine conservation group probing the living conditions of seven dolphins once housed at Underwater World Singapore (UWS) is asking for more transparency from marine attractions here.
Sea Shepherd visited Chimelong Ocean Kingdom in Zhuhai, China, three times last month to monitor the five Indo-Pacific humpbacked dolphins (or pink dolphins) that UWS said were sent there.
However, their investigators saw only four on display: females Eaung and Pann, as well as Pann's two calves, Splish and Splash.
"Further inquiries with Chimelong staff returned different responses," said Ms Jaki Teo, Singapore representative for Sea Shepherd Asia. One worker claimed the fifth dolphin, a female, was kept in an off-site research facility; but another staff said there were only four dolphins left, said Ms Teo.
UWS did not name the dolphins it sent over, but Sea Shepherd believes the fifth was Jumbo, a male.
UWS told The Straits Times its aquatic animals were all relocated to regional facilities by last October. These included the five pink dolphins, three fur seals and five otters that were sent to Chimelong. But UWS would not name the facilities the other animals, including two remaining dolphins, were moved to.
UWS also declined to respond to Sea Shepherd's report on the dolphins. Its spokesman would only say: "All the other aquatic animals also found suitable facilities to be rehoused and were safely transferred out of the UWS to various regional facilities by end October 2016."
Sea Shepherd's Ms Teo called for greater transparency from such parks. They could, for example, publish a list of acquisitions, births, deaths and sales of any animals.
"This will ensure that facilities keep to the highest animal husbandry standards and are accountable for their actions," said Ms Teo, pointing to past cases where animal deaths were swept under the rug until exposed by the media.
For example, when Gracie the dugong died in 2014, there was no announcement until last June, when The New Paper queried UWS after a reporter noticed the dugong had vanished. Similarly, when two manta rays died at Resorts World Sentosa in 2014 - the same year it started a manta ray conservation project - there were no announcements from the park until later that year, following queries from ST.
And UWS admitted that one of its dolphins, Han, was suffering from a "non-contagious form of skin cancer" only after local wildlife group Wildlife Watcher raised questions about its welfare.
It is not clear where Han and the other remaining dolphin, Speedy, were moved to. "This raises the question of whether they are still alive. This visible absence of culpability in the captive industry is a big problem," said Ms Teo.
The pink dolphin is on Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, which lists species threatened with extinction. Permits are required before animals on this list are traded.
But the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority, which issues them here, declined to specify the number of permits it issued UWS, citing organisational confidentiality. The agency would only say that it worked with UWS to rehome all the aquatic animals to various aquaria overseas.
Sea Shepherd’s call for transparency is echoed by other conservation groups, including the Nature Society (Singapore), or NSS, and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). NSS marine conservation group chairman Stephen Beng said: “As more ocean theme parks are built, it pressures hunters to acquire endangered or threatened species in already overfished oceans. Transparency will show whether an organisation supports marine life research, conservation and education.”
He added that the transfer of UWS' pink dolphins also fuels the debate on the moral acceptability of keeping animals in captivity, especially those with larger ranges and complex social structures such as cetaceans, which includes whales and dolphins.
Ms Aimee Leslie, global cetaceans and marine turtle manager at WWF-International, said: "There is no justification for a lack of transparency in the trade of protected marine species."
Chief executive of wildlife rescue group Animal Concerns Research and Education Society Louis Ng, who is also an MP for Nee Soon GRC, said: "India has banned the keeping of dolphins in captivity, Switzerland has banned the import of dolphins. Solomon Islands, where Resorts World Sentosa got their dolphins from, has also banned the export. Singapore should also move in this direction."
Correction note: An earlier version of this story misspelt NSS marine conservation group chairman Stephen Beng's name. We are sorry for the error.