A conservationist has criticised a plan to capture endangered beluga whales
By Joyce Ng and Cheung Chi-fai
A row has broken out over Ocean Park's plans to capture beluga whales if it cannot borrow or buy the species from other zoos.
An international conservationist has criticised the plan to capture the threatened species from Russian waters, saying the theme park should not build exhibits for animals before research is completed.
Construction of the new exhibit is under way and the future home of the whales, named the Polar Adventure Zone, is due to open in mid-2012.
Naomi Rose, a senior scientist with the Humane Society International, an animal protection organisation, said she would point out to other conservation bodies that Ocean Park is funding research on beluga whales in the Okhotsk Sea.
The theme park confirmed that it had been funding Russian research on beluga whales in the Okhotsk Sea since 2007.
A park spokeswoman said they would continue to look for whales to borrow, but if that was not possible, they would take them from populations which are not threatened.
Belugas are toothed whales that live in Arctic waters. They are sometimes called the 'sea canary' because of their high-pitched twitter. These whales are classified as "near threatened' on the International Union for Conservation of Nature red list of threatened species.
Scientists are not sure about the numbers and trends of these whales in the Russian Arctic. If Ocean Park wants to buy wild whales, it will have to get a special certificate from Russia to say that the whales are not endangered. But there is no way for these certificates to be questioned.
Ocean Park said a Russian beluga expert was in charge of the study and working with American and Canadian scientists.
Some conservationists are upset about the possible plan to take whales from the wild. Earlier, Ocean Park halted a controversial plan to import wild bottlenosed dolphins from the Solomon Islands.
Rose says Ocean Park has not had enough time to work out how to catch the animals safely. She said it would take around seven to 10 years just to understand how the whales are organised into stocks.
She said everyone involved in the issue would be under pressure to say it was okay to take the whales. But, the national aquarium in Taiwan has seen at least half of the 10 belugas imported in 2002 die as they could not adapt.
Dr Samuel Hung Ka-yiu, chairman of the Hong Kong Dolphin Conservation Society, asked what would happen if the study found that it was a bad idea to take the whales. 'Will the park leave the facility empty?'
Apart from belugas, the park has also released little information about the rest of its animal acquisition plan since it announced its expansion plans in 2005.