March 18, 2019
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Russia coming under pressure to release mammals from so-called whale jail

Moscow, Mar 14 (efe-epa).- A holding center for cetaceans in far east Russia, which environmentalist group Greenpeace has dubbed the largest whale jail in the world, was a growing thorn in the side for Russian president Vladimir Putin, who has always presented himself as a champion of animal rights.

After almost six months of incessant criticism, inaction from officials and the death of several whales, Putin finally ordered officials to find a solution to the situation at the marine center, located near the Pacific Coast city of Nakhodka.

"Putin didn't say the whales should be freed, only that a solution to the problem should be found," Oganes Targulyan, Greenpeace Russia research coordinator told EFE Thursday.

Activists have raised concerns for the livelihood of 87 beluga whales, 11 orcas and five young walruses held in cramped conditions at the center.

Pressure groups say the animals were captured in the wild for later sale to Chinese aquariums for millions of dollars per animal.

Celebrities such as Hollywood actor Leonardo Di Caprio, who has met with Putin previously to petition conservation efforts for the endangered Siberian tiger, have called on people to sign a petition to close the so-called whale jail.

The issue brought about further public outrage in recent weeks when Greenpeace published images showing orcas and belugas suffering from rashes, lesions and boils that experts have attributed to viral, bacterial and fungal infections.

Tatyana Denisenko, a Russian microbiologist who has examined the highly-intelligent mammals, said the symptoms demonstrated the whales' immune system had dropped due to the stress of being captured at sea and later languishing in inadequate captive conditions.

Icy conditions at the center and the lack of space for the whales to keep warm has brought on cases of hypothermia, she added, speaking to the Russian press.

The businesses in charge of the holding pens said one orca, also known as a killer whale, and three belugas had managed to escape the cages, although Greenpeace believes these animals have actually died due to the inhumane conditions.

According to Russian press, a government commission has requested that the whales be categorized into two groups: one that will be released and another that will be transferred to scientific research centers.

For Targulyan that was not enough.

"Some of the cetaceans need to be cured and the rest freed, but not all of a sudden. It's better to wait until the end of April when the temperatures rise," he said.

He said that in the meantime independent veterinarians should take over the care of the whales given that the people currently in charge – who work for businesses that have already heavily invested in their venture capturing, transporting and feeding the animals – hoped to accustom the wild animals to human interaction, which would make their re-wilding impossible.

Dmitri Glazov, from the Russian Academy of Sciences, told EFE that he warned Putin three years ago about the uninhibited capture of whales but did not receive a response.

Russia was the only country where it is legal to capture killer whales for commercial purposes, although the practice can only, in theory, be carried out for scientific research.

"If there wasn't demand from China, there would be no supply from Russia," he said.

Glazov said there were dozens of marine parks along China's border with Russia, although Russia also sold the animals to India, Vietnam, Thailand, and Pakistan.

The beluga whale (Delphinapterus leucas), which can be found in Arctic waters, is common in captivity across the world, famed for its white coloring and smiling face.

Meanwhile, the orca (Orcinus orca), is extremely widespread in the wild, where they are an apex predator, but are also popular at aqua parks.

By Ignacio Ortega

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