Stephen Schaber & Ismira Lutfia
The world’s largest sea pen for dolphin rehabilitation off the north coast of Java may be left unused as the government plans to release captive dolphins into the sea without preparing them for the wild, activists said on Thursday.
“Without rehabilitation the dolphins have a very small chance of survival,” Femke Den Haas, Jakarta Animal Aid Network founder, said on Thursday.
The Ministry of Forestry signed a memorandum of understanding with JAAN in October for a five-year plan to rehabilitate and reintroduce 70 captive dolphins to life on the high seas.
JAAN said it became aware of the government’s plan to return the dolphins directly back to the sea without prior retraining during meetings with Darori, the head of the Directorate General of Protection and Conservation of Nature (PHKA).
The group claimed the PHKA plans to release to the open sea dolphins that had been held at the Taman Safari Center in Batang and a traveling circus based in Kendal, Central Java, according to Den Haas. The circus holds permits for six dolphins but owns more than 20, he said.
JAAN spokesman Pramudya Harzani said the decision to bypass the plan was made by the ministry without any clear explanation.
“They just decided so and we are unclear why suddenly they are excluding us and want to release the dolphins without proper rehabilitation,” he said.
But the ministry was quick to deny allegations that it was breaching the agreement.
“We certainly hope that the program will go on as planned, but we are still assessing things, such as the technical preparation on the field,” said Bambang Novianto, the ministry’s biodiversity director.
Ric O’Barry, the world’s best-known dolphin activist and star of the 2009 Academy Award-winning documentary, “The Cove,” said on Thursday that the world was watching to see what would happen in this case.
“This is an opportunity for Indonesia to send a message to the rest of the world about how much it cares for nature,” O’Barry said.
He also said his son was producing a television special about the JAAN rehabilitation program for the show “Blood Dolphins” on cable television channel Animal Planet, which airs in Indonesia.
He added that he thought the Ministry of Forestry was completely unaware of the worldwide publicity, whether good or bad, Indonesia’s decision would attract globally.
“This is a potential windfall of positive publicity for Indonesia,” he said. “I hope the decision-makers do the right thing.”
O’Barry explained that staying in the sea pen in Karimun Jawa Island, which has cost $50,000 to build, would help the captive dolphins regain their strength to swim in the strong currents of the open sea.
“They haven’t been able to use their muscles to swim because they have been confined in small pens for a long time, and releasing them to the sea without rehabilitation will only mean killing them as they may not be able to survive,” O’Barry said.
Den Haas added that the dolphins must also be retrained to use their sonar.
“They stop using the sonar because it annoys them,” Den Haas said. “When in captivity they stop using it because the signal bounces [off the walls of the pool] and returns to them.”
Pramudya also said the dolphins would require between one and six months of rehabilitation, depending on length of captivity.
JAAN said ideally the dolphins would be released around Karimun Jawa Island because there was a good chance the dolphins could reconnect with their pods.
“Every dolphin has a unique sound and the ability to transmit its signal tens of miles,” Den Haas said. “We will utilize GPS pegging after release to monitor whether the dolphins have reunited with their families.”
A survey conducted by JAAN has revealed that many dolphins were held in captivity by groups in Indonesia operating under the guise of conservation, education or therapy. JAAN carried out the survey after receiving reports of abuse from members of the public concerned about the aforementioned traveling circuses.