Marine parks get popular in China

A trainer is lifted by a beluga during a show at Chimelong Ocean Kingdom in Zhuhai, China.
A trainer is lifted by a beluga during a show at Chimelong Ocean Kingdom in Zhuhai, China. PHOTO: REUTERS

HONG KONG (REUTERS) Eight beluga whales jump in unison out of a bright blue indoor pool, flipping their tail fins and spewing fountains of water, as a packed audience cheers and snaps photographs.

Whale shows like the one at Chimelong Ocean Kingdom in Zhuhai on China's southern coast, are proliferating in new marine parks across the country.

Marine parks and aquariums are opening monthly in China, with more than 36 large-scale projects set to launch in the coming two years.

This comes as many live animal shows in the United States and Europe are being scrapped due to widespread opposition.

But lured by booming domestic tourism, companies such as Haichang Ocean Park, Guangzhou R&F Properties, Dalian Shengya and Chimelong Group are spearheading the rapid growth of the industry.

More than 60 marine parks already operate in China, ranging from large-scale developments like Chimelong's Ocean Kingdom to small facilities which are typically add-ons to big property projects, said industry executives.

Cities often initiate marine park projects as an eye-catching way of raising their profiles, and offer developers vast tracts of land and cheap loans to build them.

Mr Noble Coker, president of Apex Parks and Entertainment Services which works with theme parks in Asia, said marine facilities were often a secondary consideration in an overall deal to acquire land from municipal governments.

Developers benefit from the quick development and sale of residential or commercial property, he noted, with elements like marine parks typically paid for by the property sales. But while the visitors have a splashing good time, this is driving demand for threatened species too, said scientists and activists.

Many Chinese marine parks feature whale sharks, belugas, dolphins and manta rays.

But no orcas - or killer whales, known for their distinctive black and white colouring - have been displayed publicly up to now.

At least 13 Russian orcas were exported to China between 2013 and 2016, according to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites).

Whale And Dolphin Conservation, a British-based group, said Chimelong Ocean Kingdom possesses nine orcas, Shanghai Haichang Polar Ocean World has four, and two more are at Wuxi Changqiao Ocean Kingdom.

Russia, which is the sole supplier of wild orcas and beluga whales to China, in July announced an investigation into the illegal sale of seven killer whales.

Ms Naomi Rose, a Washington-based marine mammal scientist at the Animal Welfare Institute, said the prospect of high profits would continue to attract a criminal element.

Activists worry that once China's biggest players start orca performances, it will spawn a copycat effect at smaller, less experienced parks around the country.

There are currently no local government regulations or international standards to monitor the trade, said Mr Lucio Conti, vice-president for marine facilities at Atlantis Sanya, a resort in China's tropical Hainan province.

He added that Atlantis was working with the government to establish an animal welfare standard.

"If you go to the fishermen here on the island, they can get you whatever you want. They can get you a whale shark, they can get you every species, endangered or not, because there is no such control."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 24, 2018, with the headline Marine parks get popular in China. Subscribe