Over the last week, there has been a certain level of hype surrounding the proposed Waa Whale Shark research and tourism project that has recently been granted a license by NEMA. At the offset, we want to stress that this approval from NEMA does not mean that this project CAN go ahead. There are many licenses and permits they still need to get.
But for those of us who have not been privy to all the details regarding this endeavour, we would like to take a moment and rewind back to early 2013 when the Whale Shark research and tourism project (far cry from a sanctuary so we shall not call it that) was unveiled as an emerging threat to the tourism industry and marine wildlife in the area.
In early 2013, Seaquarium Ltd proposed to capture and place healthy migratory whale sharks in an open sea enclosure off the southern Kenyan coast purportedly for the purposes of “tourism and conservation”. This proposal drew widespread criticism from marine biologists, conservation and animal welfare groups, nationally and internationally as the proposed project not only violated the welfare of the Whale Shark but also because the proponent appallingly cast aspersions on members of a local community inferring that they have been hunting the sharks – claims which were and remain completely unsubstantiated.
Following a public hearing in March 2013, the plan proposed by Seaquarium Ltd to capture wild whale sharks and transfer them to a circular enclosure (whose dimensions would be 150m across and upto 14m deep) and charge tourists to swim with them was rejected by NEMA on several grounds including animal cruelty and a flawed ESIA which did not take into account the negative impact on the tourism industry of enclosing animals that are migratory in nature and move large distances and inflated the tourism benefits.Many groups were involved in this opposition including the Kenya Wildlife Service, Africa Network for Animal Welfare, Born Free and several others.
Following the rejection by NEMA to grant them a license, Seaquarium Ltd appealed the decision and the trial was ongoing at the National Environmental Tribunal (NET) since mid 2013. We reviewed the appeal and found that it suffered from much the same flaws as did the initial ESIA in that it grossly understated the effects of capture and captivity on a Whale Shark while overstating the financial benefits of the project. Since tourists have the option of swimming with wild, free-living whale sharks at a number of sites on the East African coast, there would be no reason for them to choose to come and see the animals placed in an enclosure in Kenya. Furthermore, this project still does not have the endorsement of the Kenya Wildlife Service, which is ultimately the protector of all wildlife in Kenya – terrestrial and marine.
The case was ongoing till August 2015 when all of a sudden it was withdrawn by the project proponent. A month later, we learnt that NEMA had now granted Seaquarium Ltd a license to capture and enclose one whale shark for an indefinite period of time for a research-tourism project. While there are many requirements before the project can commence, most of us are left flummoxed by this turn of events.
We would like everyone to understand that at this point, in our reading of the license accorded by NEMA, there are still many more permits and licenses required for Seaquarium before it can begin to operate and actually capture (god forbid) a whale shark. We have written to NEMA asking for the following clarifications but are yet to receive a response on what Seaquarium can and cannot do before it gets all the licenses and permits required. We encourage everyone to read the attached license provided by NEMA and if you have any questions, thoughts or concerns please feel free to write us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Kenya is known as one of the last places in the world where wildlife can run, swim and fly unfettered. Let’s keep it that way.
We would like to welcome Seaquarium to use its extensive resources to fund conservation, research and education in a constructive manner, which can enable the free-living Whale Sharks to retain their animal freedoms and also provide benefits to the community.