SINGAPORE - Two of seven pink dolphins previously housed at Underwater World Singapore (UWS) never left the country, contrary to claims by the attraction that all its aquatic animals had found new homes in regional facilities.
Trade data published last month by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites) - an international agreement between governments to regulate the wildlife trade - showed that only five live pink dolphins (Sousa chinensis) were exported last year.
The pink dolphin is listed on Appendix I of Cites, which lists species threatened with extinction. Permits are required from local authorities before animals on this list are traded. In Singapore, these permits are issued by the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA).
Underwater World Singapore, an aquarium on Sentosa Island, closed last June after 25 years due to an expiring lease. The attraction's main stars were its seven Indo-Pacific humpbacked dolphins or pink dolphins which were named Eaung, Pann, Splish, Splash, Jumbo, Han and Speedy. On June 5 last year, UWS sent five pink dolphins, three fur seals and five otters to the Chimelong Ocean Kingdom theme park in Zhuhai, China.
Han, which had skin cancer, and Speedy, were not among the five sent to China.
But in April this year, a spokesman for Haw Par Corporation, which owned UWS, told The Straits Times that "all the other aquatic animals also found suitable facilities to be rehoused and were safely transferred out of the UWS premises to various regional facilities by end October 2016". The spokesman would not be drawn on naming the facilities.
When approached then, the AVA also declined to specify the number of permits issued to UWS, citing organisational confidentiality. The spokesman would only say that it worked with UWS to rehome all the aquatic animals to various aquaria overseas.
When queried on the export data earlier this week, the Haw Par spokesman declined to comment.
AVA, however, confirmed with The Straits Times on Friday (Nov 24) that it issued five export permits to UWS to facilitate the rehoming of live dolphins overseas as indicated in the Cites trade database. But the AVA spokesman stressed that its role was to ensure that Cites-listed animals are imported and exported according to the Convention.
"When these animals are in Singapore, their custodian (in this case, UWS) would be responsible for ensuring the care and welfare of these animals," she added. "There were no animal welfare issues detected when the dolphins were under the care of UWS."
Earlier this year, international marine conservation group Sea Shepherd visited the China facility on multiple occasions to monitor the five dolphins sent from Singapore, but found only four on display: females Eaung and Pann, as well as Pann's two calves Splish and Splash. Sea Shepherd said workers at the China park gave differing accounts for the missing dolphin, Jumbo, with one claiming that it was kept in an off-site research facility and another insisting that there were only four dolphins left.
UWS did not comment on the Sea Shepherd report then.
Marine conservation groups point out that the issue of the missing dolphins highlighted the lack of transparency around marine parks, saying that there was "very little culpability" in the dolphin trade.
Ms Jaki Teo, Singapore representative for Sea Shepherd Asia, said: "These long-living, intelligent and sensitive creatures are treated as mere commodities, and facilities are allowed to operate with appalling lack of transparency."