Since the first week of September the question haunts the anti-captivity movement: will Namibia join the ranks of the infamous dolphin-nappers of Taiji-Japan, Malaita-Solomon Islands and the Russian Fareast, as a source for wild-caught dolphins for marine circuses?
Both local Namibian environmentalists and observers the world over, are loosing their patience with the Namibian government as it stalls decision making on a wild-dolphin catching proposal.
According to the Namibian Sun, a ministry spokesperson confirmed that the application had been reviewed by ministry experts and advisors and that their recommendations were put on minister Bernhardt Esau’s desk. A personal assistant of Esau told that same newspaper that the decision was still pending because the minister had not had a chance to attend to the matter; a matter that has been dragging on now for two-and-a-half months.
On September 6, the Namib Times baffled conservationists around the globe, when they ran the story that a Chinese businessman had filed a request to catch bottlenose dolphins, orcas, sea lions and penguins in the waters of Namibia to sell on the Asian market for aquarium animals.
The applicants were named as “Welwitschia Aquatic and Wildlife Scientific Research Pty Ltd” and “Beijing Ruier Animal Breeding & Promoting Co.” Nothing is known about these companies and possibly they were purposely created for this application.
The newspaper spoke of various confidential sources that would have confirmed that a request for a permit had been lodged with the Namibian Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources (MFMR).
At the time, a spokesman for the Ministry, De Wet Mulauli Siluka, denied any knowledge of the case and could not or would not answer questions on the topic. The government ‘omerta’ lasted until October.
Late November the Namibian Sun linked Welwitschia to to a prominent Chinese businessman in Namibia. A letterhead for Welwitschia Aquatic and Wildlife Scientific Research, lists the same business address and telephone number as those of millionaire Jack Huang’s Sun Investment Group in Windhoek. The telephone number let to the information that the contact person for Welwitschia Aquatic and Wildlife Service Research is a certain Jeff Huang. Both denied any knowledge of the application to export marine animals.
Namibia has earned a bad reputation among conservationists by issuing year after year licenses to club tens of thousands of Cape fur seals. This largest slaughter of marine mammals in the world and the only one in which nursing pups may be beaten to death, takes place in the four months from July 1 onwards. The pups are separated from their mothers, the way to the ocean is blocked and terrified pups are herded together in a dense group after which hired men with bats do the dirty work.
The first blow is rarely enough to kill a Cape fur seal baby and the massacre is therefore considered to be one of the most inhumane in the world. If a pup is dead or unconscious it is stabbed in the neck to bleed out. The corpses are thrown into the backs of stand-by pickups and trucks for transport to the processing plant.
All this happens in the early morning. The beach is smeared with blood and vomited-up mothers milk after the slaughter. Bulldozers clean up the mess so there is no evidence left when the first tourists arrive around 9 o’clock in the morning to see the seal colony at Cape Cross.
80,000 Fur seal pups are slain in this way for their fur. In addition, a further 6,000 adult males are shot so that their penises can be used in aphrodisiacs on the Asian market for traditional medicines.
The Namibian government views the slaughter in addition to a welcome source of revenue also as pest control. As elsewhere on the planet, marine mammals are seen as competition for the fishing industry and scapegoated when human overfishing becomes too palpable.
The Chinese applicants smartly played into this lucrative superstition in their proposal, which stated that the live capture of marine animals would “help Namibia improve its overview of the marine environment”. According to the Namibian Environment and Wildlife Society (NEWS) the applicants’ made statements that dolphins, penguins and whales are devastating local fish stocks.
In September, NEWS was told by the Deputy Permanent Secretary (PS) of MFMR, Mr. Kauaria that the application received by MFMR is only for the live capture of seals. He gave NEWS the assurance that if an application to capture whales and dolphins was to be received, MFMR would definitely refuse to grant it.
But a capture of live seals would be land-based, while rumours about Namibia’s forthcoming accession to the dolphin slavery industry were fuelled by the arrival in the Namibian port of Walvisbaai of the ship Ryazanovka.
According to the Namib Times the vessel is specifically modified to catch marine wildlife, including an onboard tank for captive dolphins and confirmed the captain to several local stakeholders that the vessel was used for the purpose of catching dolphins in Russia.
On June 14, “Welwitschia Aquatic and Wildlife Scientific Research” applied for Namibian registration for said vessel.
Between May and August, the ship lay at anchor in the southern port of Lüderitz. The ship was built in 1991 as a 45-meter trawler and sailed under Russian flag, but its Automatic Identification System (AIS) identifies the ship now as ‘Special Craft’. According to the Namibian Sun the ship’s manager and owner is Vasiliyev OA, based in Petropavlovsk, Russia, which is also listed as its home port.
After the Namib News story broke, the ship disappeared.
On September 22, it was reported that the applicants intended to invest an initial amount of 30 million Namibian Dollars (about 2 million US$) in the venture.
If the application were to be approved by the Ministry, not only Fisheries Minister Bernhard Esau would have to give his consent, but also an export license has to be granted by CITES, the ‘Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of wild flora and fauna’. CITES regulates global trade in protected species. Bottlenose dolphins are officially protected in Namibian waters. In fact, all the species named in the proposal are listed as protected species by the Namibia Marine Resources Act and all are listed on CITES Appendix II.
In the most recent meeting of CITES in Johannesburg, South Africa, last October, Namibia was not only part of the successful effort to block Appendix I protection for the southern population of African Elephants, but also tried, together with Zimbabwe, to revive the global trade in ivory. This proposal was defeated, but CITES, for example, does allow Namibia to offer leopards, cheetahs and rhinos (among other animals) for trophy hunting.
Environment minister Pohamba Shifeta, said the request to capture live mammals in Namibian waters would also require input from his ministry to make sure the request complies with Namibian environmental laws and policies in addition to international conventions on trade in wildlife to which Namibia must adhere.
According to the Sun he said that the decision does not rest solely with the Ministry of Fisheries, as it needs to be considered against domestic and international laws governing environment issues, including wildlife.
South African activists remarked on the 24th that the Namibian government still denies any involvement and that the ship can’t be found, but on September 27 the Namib Times, reports that the Ryazanovka is again at anchor at Walvisbaai and that the ship is waiting for the availability of a dry dock.
The Namibian on September 30 reported that it is their understanding that the permit asked for the export of “10 orca (killer whales); 500-1000 Cape fur seals; 300-500 African penguins; 50-100 Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins; 50-100 common bottlenose dolphins; and various sharks.”
They also mentioned that Fisheries ministry permanent secretary Moses Maurihungirire the day before had, finally, confirmed that the Ministry had received such an application, and were looking into the matter.
In the same article it is noted: “According to documents seen by The Namibian, the company will invest N$300 million it says would be important for the protection and management of these marine resources.”
The Namibian Sun reports in October that “[t]he proposed harvest of critically endangered species including dolphins and African penguins could wipe out Namibia’s populations of these animals, since the number of animals requested for annual harvest is higher than the number in existence.
Dolphin researchers said fewer than 100 common bottlenose dolphins inhabit Namibian waters, but the Chinese put in a request to capture 100 a year.”
According to the Sun the fisheries ministry’s permanent secretary, Dr Moses Maurihungirire, said on October 6 that the final decision will be made by the minister of fisheries and marine resources, Bernhard Esau, when he returns to the country in two weeks.
But another month passed without a decision being made.
By December 5, the Ryazanovka trawler was alongside the dock in Walvisbaai’s main port, according to the Namibian Sun, taking in “bunkers, stores and water. The volumes are enormous.” The question was: are the vessel and its crew readying for catching operations in Namibian waters or have the owners given up on the wildlife trade proposal and are preparing to leave? Trade Ocean, the vessel’s agent told Namibian Sun they would not comment on any matter relating to the vessel.
All the while the fisheries ministry had remained silent on whether a permit had either been granted or denied to the Chinese company Welwitschia Aquatic and Wildlife Scientific Research to catch Namibian marine wildlife.
Then on December 20, a statement by the Ryazanovka’s master Ilya Sharapov, mystifying in its rudeness, was published in the Namib Times. The master said he represented Beijing Ruier Animal Breeding and Promoting Company that partnered locally with Welwitschia Aquatic and Wildlife Scientific Research. The statement, directed at “ALL Namibian media”, said, after some sustainable use claims, that because of the negative publicity Namibia was going to miss out on N$100 million in initial investments and that the objectors “were mostly wealthy people inside and outside Namibia whose countries supported apartheid in the past which led to the current economic oppression of thousands of Namibians, and some of those who because of their white skin directly benefitted from the discriminatory apartheid policies.”
Just as insulting is that twice in the letter the marine mammals proposed to be caught such as dolphins and sea lions are labelled as “excess”.
The statement also claims that “many more millions” would have been invested in a “state of the art marine park on the Namibian coast.”
At the end of the statement the master writes: “we have come to the conclusion of withdrawing our investment proposition. … Our ship will be repaired in Walvis Bay and will leave the country.”
This comes however with a promise: “… one day when the Namibian Government is ready, we may return.”
Namibian authorities responded that they had not been informed of the application’s withdrawal and … so the soap opera continues.
Just before the end of 2016, it was reported that the crew of the Ryazanovka, now at anchor again at Walvisbaai, have been mending and readying large fishing nets, probably purse seines. The Namibian Marine Resources Act 27 of 2000, regulation 12(1) reads: “A person who engages in the harvest of marine resources of commercial purposes in Namibian waters may not use any fishing gear that is not authorised by a right, exploratory right, quota or licence.” Regulation 12(2) reads: “The master of a licensed fishing vessel which carries on board fishing gear not authorised by a right, exploratory right, quota or licence must…(b) keep the fishing gear securely stowed away at all times.” The activity on board the Ryazanovka could therefor be labeled as illegal.
Meanwhile the Namibian Government who should have canned the proposal when it was submitted in March, stays mostly silent. When something is said, it is usually a hiding behind bureaucracy. Like when in the first week of 2017 Namibia’s environment minister said: “Any utilisation or removal of natural resources can only be done after issuing an environmental clearance certificate and if we are convinced that the removal … will not threaten those species”. He said no environmental clearance certificate had been applied for in the case of the marine animal application, that the fisheries ministry could not issue such permit in the absence of an environmental clearance certificate and thus that “even if they get a permit, it will be invalid”. Only a politician can get away with saying things like that.
The world will keep closely watching the proces. Namibian politicians have already tarnished the image of their country through the merciless persecution of the local wildlife in the examples listed above. Another assault on Namibia’s reputation will for sure harm the Namibian tourism industry, one of the main pillars under the country’s economy.