Dolphins are still being held captive in traveling circuses, forced to perform and treated inhumanely despite Forestry Minister Zulkifli Hasan vowing last year to close down the popular sideshows.
The dolphins are captured illegally, with traders and circus owners continuing to defy the law, and little is being done to stop them, activists say.
Femke den Haas, founding director of the Jakarta Animal Aid Network (JAAN), says that after years of fighting for the end of the travelling dolphin shows, she does not have much hope for Indonesia’s protected species, with the country “heading in the wrong direction” in terms of wildlife protection and those in charge failing to carry out their duties.
“I feel very frustrated and angry because this shows clearly that Indonesian wildlife is doomed to survive under this management,” she said.
The intelligent sea creatures are forced to perform in front of crowds multiple times a day, doing tricks like jumping through rings of fire. They are often under-fed and treated without necessary care and kept in unsuitable chlorinated pools, which can leave them blind.
The wild mammals are dragged around the country in inappropriate transport, with some perishing due to insufficient care and neglect.
Wild dolphins are protected from capture under Indonesian law, but loopholes have been exploited, with circuses claiming the dolphins have been taken from the wild because of injuries after becoming entangled in nets and needing medical attention, which leaves them unable to be released back into the wild.
Fishermen who capture and sell the dolphins to the circuses can make good money, but JAAN has found they can also be reluctant sellers.
“Their coordinator clearly stated on film that he feels horrible about doing this, as the dolphins ‘cry like babies’ and are just like humans,” JAAN staff said in a report.
“But the circus pays big money for the dolphins, and that is why he captured dolphins for them.”
Den Haas said local forestry officials were violating the ministry’s own laws, which state that dolphins cannot be captured in the first place. But once they are caught, officials give approval for them to be moved, despite the legalities. Without a permit to move the dolphins, the circuses would not be able to travel.
“The only reason they do it is because there is big money involved with the dolphin circus,” den Haas said.
In August last year, Forestry Minister Zulkifli declared an end to the circuses through an official letter, and circus owners agreed to stop the shows.
Despite the rhetoric, little has changed. The circuses continue. Den Haas said the ministry never followed up and the shows moved to different locations with approved permits. She said the minister had told her it was now out of his hands and that he had done his part by ordering their closure.
“The circus is still happening and the capture of dolphins is also still happening, and when we reported back to the minister saying, look the circus is still happening, and we also proved about the capture of dolphins from the wild, the minister stated he already prohibited the circus and it was no longer his duty to follow up,” she said.
Despite once being called a hero by renowned dolphin campaigner Richard O’Barry, the minister has washed his hands of the issue and deferred it to the police.
Den Haas said going to the police “was ridiculous” because JAAN representatives would have to travel to wherever a circus was performing on a given day and report it there, then follow it to wherever it moved next; while the ministry had the power to stop the shows and free the dolphins.
She said she was frustrated by the lack of action, but could not see a change in the near future as long as those benefiting commercially from the captured dolphins were also involved in monitoring the protection of the species.
She said she believed the ministry had lost credibility by not enforcing its policy and because local officials continued to issue travel permits for the dolphins even though the minister ordered a halt to the permits.
Den Haas added that the ministry was “relying on the wrong people.”
She strongly criticized the Indonesian Zoo Association, or PKBSI, which is responsible for ensuring animal welfare in Indonesian animal parks, saying that some of its members had potential conflicts of interest with commercial interests in trading and exploiting the wildlife in their care for financial gain.
“They have no interest fixing the problems,” she said.
Until a completely independent group with knowledge about wildlife, but with no commercial interest, is established to oversee and enforce regulations and laws, den Haas said, the ministry will continue to damage its reputation and fail to protect the country’s wildlife.
A rehabilitation center was set up under a 2010 memorandum of understanding, which declared JAAN and the Forest Ministry would protect, save and rehabilitate captured dolphins.
Yet the center still sits eerily empty, waiting for the dolphins that have never been rescued from the circuses to reclaim their place in the sea.