The Rhino Summit

April 16th, 2014

Pretoria South Africa. April 8th and 9th 2014.

Two days, dozens of experts – lawyers, economists, rangers, land owners, conservationists, veterinarians, broadcasters, investigators, policy analysts, campaigners, wildlife trade specialists… An equal number of high quality presentations to an audience of over 130.

There was no stone unturned at the Pretoria Risk Assessment of Rhino Horn Trade Symposium hosted by OSCAP (Outraged South African Citizens Against Poaching).

Over 400 years of experience, represented by the Panel, pretty much nailed the ‘pro trade’ argument from every angle.

Despite invitations, the South African government did not turn up and neither did the Professional Hunters Association nor did any of the individual pro-trade advocates.

What were they afraid of? The truth?

Of course, rhino conservation is extremely challenging – the wave of poachers coming in from all sides, especially Mozambique, but undoubtedly supported by South African counterparts. The financial burden on private rhino owners who are desperately trying to find ways to fund the massive additional costs of improved security. The trauma and distress of losing two or more rhino a day and the sheer horror of patching up the bloody faces of the survivors who live, disfigured, to tell the tale.

Everyone agreed that rhino horn was of no medicinal or other value. Unanimity!

Whichever way you look at it, proposals to legalise a trade in rhino horn, as proposed by the South African government, are irrational, ill-conceived and massively risky. They could turn a disaster into a crisis from which the wild rhino may never recover.

But, of course, if legal trade is not the answer, then what is?

I suggested a conservation ‘levy’ on every international citizen arriving into South Africa. A dedicated fund, only available to be spent directly on endangered species such as the rhino, and administered by a trust fund involving key stakeholders. At just $5 a passenger that could generate around US$20 million a year, every year, for endangered species conservation priorities.

Others advocated stronger support for law enforcement; training for the judiciary; better control of powerful tranquillising drugs now being used by poachers to silently immobilise and then kill their victims; more effective outreach to local communities to encourage them to be the ‘eyes and ears’ of the conservation movement; direct appeals to political leaders in consumer States to step up and take a stand; intensification of public awareness efforts in those same consumer States to drive down and, if possible, eliminate demand.

There is much to do – but I believe it can be done.

However, it will all continue to go the hell in a handcart if the South African authorities carry on promoting the idea of a legal trade and those people who stand to make a killing continue to speculate on that prospect.

It seems crystal clear to me. No trade. None at all. Drop the subject. And let’s all get round the table together and find the lasting, effective solutions to rhino conservation that are so urgently needed.

Conservation not consumption – that has to be our aim!

Blogging off


Will Travers | 6 Comments »

No More Aquatic Prisons

April 14th, 2014

It’s always something. China has just finished construction on Ocean Kingdom, newly certified as the world’s biggest aquarium. Located on Hengqin Island, its 48.75 million liters of water are now home to ten captive whale sharks (a threatened species we worked so hard to protect at CITES meetings), dolphins, and polar bears – among other rare sea life. It is being touted as an exciting new entertainment destination, but in reality it is a miserable prison for animals that belong in the wild.

The powerful film Blackfish, released in 2013, shined a bright spotlight on the issue of marine mammals in captivity. The orcas in the film were demonstrated to be highly intelligent and social animals who swim up to 100 miles a day in the wild. Forcing orcas – and other dolphins – to spend their lives in “concrete bathtubs” filled with chlorinated water is exploitative and abusive.

Marine mammals establish complex social groups in the wild, and maintain strong relationships with their family group. In sea parks and aquariums, individuals from different social groups are thrown together, which may result in aggression towards individuals, aggression from which there is no means of escape. Evidence suggests that separation from their family, particularly from their children, produces enormous levels of distress and grief.

Marine mammals in the wild also engage in mentally-stimulating activities that use the full extent of their remarkable brainpower. They demonstrate complex problem-solving and abstract concept formation as they hunt, navigate, and play. Isolation and lack of engagement, with nothing to relieve their boredom, can cause high levels of stress, aggression, and mental illness.

Sea parks and aquariums claim that they are in the vanguard of conservation, but real conservation is undermined when animals are ‘stolen’ from their natural homes and imprisoned for human entertainment. These animals will never be released into a viable natural habitat to boost wild populations. All of them will spend the rest of their lives swimming around in small tanks, for little more than public amusement.

While we will assist where we can around the world to put public pressure on sea parks, there is currently an exciting development in the U.S. Legislators in both California and New York have introduced bills to end performances by orcas at entertainment parks. The California bill goes even further: it would ban orca captive breeding programs and require current captive orcas to be retired to sea pens as well, effectively shutting down SeaWorld’s San Diego Park if it passes. My colleagues at Born Free USA are doing what they can to help shepherd these bills through the state legislatures.

Compassion toward marine mammals in captivity is long overdue, and the new Ocean Kingdom is the latest call to action to end this exploitation once and for all.

Blogging off,


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Is enough being done to save the rhino?

April 2nd, 2014

So far this year (to 28 March 2014) over 230 rhino have been poached in South Africa and less than 55 poachers have been arrested (arrested, not convicted)…

That means that, on average, 1 poacher is apprehended for every 4 rhino killed.

Success? I don’t think so!

I am heading to South Africa this weekend (5th April) to find out more at a critical meeting of national and international experts hosted by Outraged South African Citizens Against Poaching (

What’s to be done?

In my opinion, the South African government and certain business interests, have simply got to stop speculating on the establishment of a future legal trade in rhino horn. Yes, South Africa plans to ask the 180 delegates to the CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) meeting, to be hosted in Cape Town in 2016, to approve a legitimate trade in rhino horn.

There also needs to be a far greater enforcement effort – and if South Africa needs money to train and deploy more rangers then why not add a R50 Conservation Contribution to all arriving international visitors who would surely be willing to pay a few dollars more to help ensure that endangered species like rhino, which many of them have travelled thousands of miles to see, are safe.

But rhinos are not just hitting the headlines in South Africa….

In Australia, just last week, a pair of rhino horn were sold for AU$92,500. Yes, of course, they were antique but their sale, in my view, simply confirmed once more the extraordinary price on every rhino’s head. We simply must stop all commercial sales. The buyer was from the Far East and suspect that’s where they will end up…

Australia also just announced that it was withdrawing an AU$3 million grant to Indonesia to help protect the highly endangered Sumatran rhino (only 200 left in the wild). Australian Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, said that saving the endangered Sumatran rhinoceros should not be a priority of the Australian aid budget. The funding was going towards habitat protection, anti-poaching efforts and monitoring of the rhino horn trade. Now it’s not. Shame!

In January, rhino horns with a street value of more than $6 million were seized by customs officials in Thailand and Singapore, according to Traffic, the wildlife trade monitoring network. Almost 44 kilograms of rhino horn were discovered en route to Vietnam, where one kilogram of horn sells for about $120,000.

In Europe there have been more than 60 break-ins at natural history museums since 2010, with the thieves targeting rhino horns. Sometimes they are just snapped off the mounted heads of the stuffed animals.

Namibia announced that 3 Chinese nationals were arrested on 23rd March as they boarded an aircraft with 14 concealed rhino horns and leopard skins hidden in their luggage. They were about to board a flight to Johannesburg with a connection onto Hong Kong as their final destination.

Mozambique has  – just – avoided international sanctions by filing a report on its plans to tackle rhino poaching – 2 months late. However, critics remain highly sceptical claiming that the authorities simply don’t take the issue as seriously and don’t commit the resources to do anything about it. Anti-poaching laws in Mozambique are weak where rhino poaching is seen more as a misdemeanour.

So rhino are in the news – for all the wrong reasons. I hope that the OSCAP conference will change that and that there will be some good news to report – for a change! Watch this space!

Blogging off


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Breeding, beatings and conservation white elephants

March 19th, 2014

On 11th March, Twycross Zoo announced the birth of a female Asian elephant to 18 year-old female Noorjahan, as a result of artificial insemination. The Zoo has been quick to celebrate and publicise the news of the new arrival, but let’s recap on their recent chequered history with elephants.

Young elephants in zoos are at serious risk of contracting Elephant Endotheliotropic Herpesvirus (EEHV), for which there is currently no vaccine nor reliable cure. Since 2000, EEHV has been implicated in the deaths of at least 16 elephants in zoos and circuses in Europe, including 10 in zoos in the UK. Twycross Zoo has previously reported at least 2 possible cases of elephant calves dying from the disease.  Noorjahan’s last pregnancy, also the result of artificial insemination, ended in tragedy when the baby died of suspected EEHV at 20 months.

Elephant management practices at the park have also recently been called into question. In 2012, the Zoo sacked three elephant keepers for allegedly beating the elephants, with some reports indicating that Noorjahan was one of the elephants involved. The incident was reported to the police who arrested the former keepers on suspicion of causing unnecessary suffering to an animal, although last year the Crown Prosecution Service ruled that there was ‘insufficient evidence’ to charge two of the keepers under the Animal Welfare Act.

Disease, premature deaths, beatings: it paints a sorry picture of life at Twycross. Fingers crossed for the new arrival.

Many zoos claim that captive-breeding of Asian elephants contributes to the conservation of the species but evidence suggests that more elephants die in captivity than are born so there is little prospect of the captive population ever actually contributing elephants to the wild. In truth the Asian elephant will only survive if measures are taken to fully protect and conserve the species in its natural habitat. Clearly were a fraction of the massive amounts of money spent on keeping elephants in zoos (the Los Angeles Zoo recently spent over $42 million on its new 2.1 acre enclosure) then a long term future for wild Asian elephants might be assured.

Further information:

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Whalefest! The very word thrills!

March 12th, 2014

A time for people who care about the future of whales and dolphins to come together to bond and to acknowledge the challenges faced by these extraordinary species in captivity and in the wild and to seek solutions.

Whalefest is taking over Brighton from the afternoon of 14th – 17th March and to kick it off, on Friday afternoon, a life-size inflatable orca (we do not say killer whale where I come from) will be trundled around Brighton, ending up at Hove Lawns on Friday, early evening.

I am honoured and delighted to be taking part in this extraordinary gathering.

On Saturday, at 1.15 pm in the Hilton Metropole, I will be pretending to be a ‘Dimbleby’, helping to host a special kind of Question Time with prospective European Parliamentary candidates for the south-east of England and marine mammal experts. Together we will explore (I hope) the environmental agenda of our politicians and try to address the concerns of WhaleFest visitors.

You have the chance to make your voice heard too and I invite you to submit your questions to me via the comment section below, and I will try and make sure that the most thought-provoking questions are asked on your behalf.

Saturday evening (again at the Hilton Metropole, at 8.00 pm) I am taking part in a panel discussion with some of the world’s top experts following the presentation of excerpts from the extraordinary documentary Blackfish which has shaken the captive marine mammal industry to its core.  If you have not seen Blackfish and you can’t make it on Saturday, you can buy a copy here.

I am certainly looking forward to having a whale of a time in Brighton this weekend.  I hope you can be there too.

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Farming Elephants: Will Travers Responds

March 5th, 2014

Simon Jenkins: “If You Really Want To Save The Elephants, Farm Them” (Guardian Thursday 13 February)

A Response: Will Travers OBE. Founder The Born Free Foundation.

Simon Jenkins compared the bloody ivory trade and the scourge of rhino and elephant poaching with the trade in cocaine.

In two respects, he is right.

Ivory and rhino horn are expensive – so is cocaine

Ivory and rhino horn trade costs lives – so does the trade in illegal class A drugs.

But in almost every other respect his analogy is way off the mark.

Global organised crime syndicates ruthlessly exploit the miserable, addictive nature of drugs to make massive profits. Ivory is not a drug, it is not addictive. It is an item of adornment, a middle class status-symbol, and it is human vanity and greed that the cartels exploit to make a killing.

In his article “If You Really Want To Save The Elephants, Farm Them” (Guardian Thursday 13 February) Mr Jenkins dismissed the recent High Level Meeting on Illegal Wildlife Trade as a junket for the elite, focussed on issues that few care about deeply. Extraordinarily, he suggested that the meeting enslaved Africans once more!

Bizarrely, he bemoaned the destruction of ivory stocks in the US, China and France as equivalent to ‘medieval princes burning food to taunt starving subjects’, claiming it was the waste of a resource that could be sold to support conservation.

He carefully avoided reporting the string of ivory stockpile destructions that have taken place in Africa by Africans – in Kenya, Gabon, Zambia – and soon to take place in Tchad, Ethiopia, Tanzania and possibly others.

He characterised the London summit as a meeting of CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora). It was not. Meetings of the 180 signatory countries to CITES take place every 3 years (the last in Bangkok, March 2013, I was there, as I have been at every CITES meeting since 1989) and this was not one of them. He loosely describes CITES as the “world wildlife organisation”. It is not. It is a wildlife trade control agreement which, despite its many flaws, is the only internationally-binding accord that can control and, if necessary, stop legal trade if that trade threatens the survival of a species.

When it comes to the history of the ivory trade his recollection is simply mystifying, especially since it has been so well-documented. Far for the international ivory trade ban (agreed in 1989 by, yes, CITES) leading to elephant numbers halving and the prices of raw ivory soaring, the price of illegal ivory fell through the floor and, across Africa, elephant numbers stabilised or started to recover.

It was the limited re-opening of trade, not the banning of it, that eradicated those hard-won gains. In 2008, it was the foolish decision (in which the UK government of the day was involved) to allow over 100 tonnes of ivory to be legally sold from Southern African stockpiles to Japan, and more particularly, China, that has stimulated the industrial levels of poaching, the soaring quantities of smuggled ivory and the massive escalation in price that now place the species at such fatal risk across much of its range.

He suggests that the recent extraordinary spike in rhino poaching was as a result of a CITES-inspired trade ban (applied in the 1970’s). Incorrect. In fact, the opposite may be true. The legalising of limited rhino trophy hunting, a measure fully exploited by criminality (including the use of pseudo hunters and Thai prostitutes to shoot the animals), has contributed to a situation whereby while 13 rhino were poached in South Africa in 2007, 1004 were poached there in 2013 – a 7000% increase.

He extolls the virtues of community based natural resource management (CBNRM) programmes like CAMPFIRE in Zimbabwe, where local communities were supposedly advanced and enriched through autonomous, localised exploitation of their natural resources (including wildlife), but conveniently avoids reporting that the programme is controversial, widely discredited and required US$45 million in donor support while delivering less than US$10 million to local communities (1989-1996)

He asserts that the annual selling of 5 rhino trophies in Namibia (the latest being sold at auction in Dallas, Texas, for $350,000) make ‘far more than photography tourism could ever generate’.  Let’s be clear: the total trophy hunting revenue claimed by the trophy hunting industry itself (not exactly an impartial source) for all of Africa is $200 million a year, half generated in South Africa. Kenya alone generates about $1billion a year from non-consumptive wildlife-based photo tourism and employs hundreds of thousands of people into the bargain.

He applauds the views of Michael t’Sas-Rolfe and his ‘powerful’ case for farming ranched rhino horn. He should have heard Mr t’Sas-Rolfe’s rudimentary economic theory (there is no ‘basic law of economics’) brilliantly dismantled by Alejandro Nada, (the eminent Mexican economist) at the Symposium on Wildlife Trade held at the Zoological Society of London, the day before the London Summit.

There is no simplistic ‘supply and demand’ paradigm at play here. It is all about risk. We don’t know the size of the market; we don’t know the drivers of the market; we don’t know how elastic that market is (how much people are willing to spend before price starts to have an impact on demand). As Nick Herbert MP said recently in a debate on wildlife trade in the House of Commons ‘we need to choke demand, not stoke it’, and that legitimizing trade is likely to stimulate demand not satisfy it. The ‘use it or lose it’ philosophy, so eloquently championed by Robert Mugabe (not renowned for sound economic practices), is dangerously naive.

Far from shackling Africa to the whimsy of a new breed of eco-colonialists (Mr Jenkins’ remarks about the ability of western conservation charities to hold sway over the sovereign rights of African nations are quite fantastical), the London conference was significant because it respected the views of the majority of African nations who do not support a return to ivory or rhino horn trade; because it secured international continuity of effort to bear down on organised wildlife crime, the proceeds of which increasingly end up fuelling rebel militias such as the Lord’s Resistance Army; because it established new conservation funding streams, including the Elephant Protection Initiative, linked to destruction of stockpiles; because it recognised the central role that those countries with elephants and rhino have in securing a future for their wildlife species, in particular Africa’s blueprint for elephant conservation – created and agreed by all 38 elephant range States – the African Elephant Action Plan.

He did not acknowledge the real life impact of the ivory trade on real, live elephants. Up to 50,000 gunned down a year (meaning a net loss in elephant numbers of around 30,000 a year); the macabre, putrid mass of bones and skin that stains the African earth after the poachers have gone (and which I have witnessed at first hand time and again); the orphaned calves left to starve; entire herds eradicated by the ubiquitous AK47; the grieving survivors.

He suggests tusks could, in some way be removed (harvested) from living elephants. Fantasy. Elephants need and use their tusks as part of their survival strategy for stripping bark to eat, mining for salt, digging for water. The males use them to joust for social dominance. And each tusk has a massive nerve running 30% of its length, in a big tusk as thick as a human arm, which would have to be left intact leaving enough ivory to tempt poachers – who don’t care about the nerve!

So for these and many other reasons, Mr Jenkins, whose commentary is usually so perceptive, is all at sea when it comes to the wildlife trade and the notion that species such as elephants can be ‘farmed’. Incidentally elephants fail to thrive in captivity (captive populations in zoos around the world are on their way out as the number bred don’t replace the number that die) and suffer all sorts of physical and behavioural problems.

Africa’s conservationists know what to do to save elephants. Marketing gurus know what to do to drive down and eradicate demand for ivory. Many politicians, including our own Foreign Secretary and Prime Minister, are willing to make the political commitment. Rangers and wardens remain willing to put themselves between the poacher’s bullet and its intended target. The resources still need to be funded.

Mr Jenkins, there is two simple truths. Ivory is not cocaine and elephants are not cattle.

** An edited version of this article was published in The Guardian on Monday 3rd March 2014

Donate to Born Free’s ‘Elephant Emergency’ Appeal today

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3rd March 2014 is the first World Wildlife Day

March 3rd, 2014

This comes at a time when the future survival of wildlife and wild places seems to have assumed a high priority on the international agenda. The weight of incidents, events, meetings and tragedies simply cannot be ignored.

The London Summit on Illegal Wildlife Trade aimed at tackling the massive impact of serious, organised wildlife crime on species as diverse as elephants, rhino, sharks, tigers, lions, pangolins and more;

The announcement that Iraq has become the 180th country to join CITES (the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora);

The ongoing misery of Arturo, the Polar bear in Argentina’s Mendoza Zoo;

The news that a Ugandan High Court Judge has released nearly 3 tonnes of ivory to a Congolese businessman;

The destruction of Marius, the young giraffe at Copenhagen Zoo (‘surplus to requirements’)

Confirmation from Tanzania that plans to build a highly-controversial highway through the world-famous Serengeti National Park are relentlessly advancing.

That some of the world’s most iconic species, and the habitats they rely on for their survival, face a crisis is now widely accepted. However, what to do about it remains the subject of fierce debate.

Some say ‘use it or lose it’ (a phrase made famous by Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe) and frequently used by advocates of trophy hunting, the continued trade in wildlife products and the weakening of environmental protection laws. They argue that regulated forms of wildlife and environmental exploitation generate money for developing countries, help meet the needs of local communities, support conservation and sustain species.

Others look at it a different way. They (and I am one of them) contend that there are now ‘so many of us’ and ‘so few of them’ that, leaving aside the ethical dimension for a moment, the risks to species from ongoing and relentless commercial exploitation; the ability of wildlife crime to use any legal trade as a smokescreen for industrial-scale corruption and illegal trade; the rapacious demands of increasingly affluent end-user markets;  and the truly global scale of the problem, mean we have to consider an alternative approach.

If we, as a species (with the power over life and death, survival or extinction,  for all life on earth) value wildlife, not because of the money we can make from it but for the intrinsic values it offers and the role it plays in dynamic, evolving ecosystems, then we need to pay for it.

The parallel I would draw is with the Arts. Even in these austere times, the UK government believes that the Arts are such an important part in the fabric of our society that they will spend £350 million of tax-payers money subsidising and supporting them. All over the world, many countries do the same in recognition of the fact that the richness of human creativity and expression would be diminished or lost if entrusted only to commercial imperatives. No government support? No experimental theatre, no independent films, no free, open-to-all, museums….

Well, in my view, wildlife species are the natural treasures of the world and we need to treat them in the same way we treat the Arts. After all, the UK can find £45 billion for High Speed 2 (a new rail link from London to Birmingham, the UK’s second largest city); Russia spent tens of billions on the Olympic Games; the US spends over £400 billion a year on its military budget, over 5 times that of China.

It’s not that we don’t have the resources, it’s how we decide to spend them. We have a choice.

World Wildlife Day on 3rd March may just turn out to be the focus we need to reconsider our current trajectory of planetary annihilation and step back and try something new.

So although 3rd March is certainly a date for your calendar, I hope that, together with Born Free, you decide to go one step further and make each and every day your World Wildlife Day. It’s time for a change and there isn’t a moment to lose!

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Will Travers OBE
President Born Free Foundation

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South Africa Rejects Aspects of London High Level Meeting on Illegal Wildlife Trade

February 20th, 2014

While South Africa has announced its support for some of the outcomes of the London Summit on Wildlife Crime, it appears that Environment Minister Molewa is, in some respects, at odds with the international mood and swimming against the tide of public opinion.

The Minister declares she is “fighting against rhino poaching and not against sustainable utilization. Any default policy change leading to non-utilization, done in the name of anti-poaching is clearly problematic as it goes against our principles of sustainable utilisation.”

However, she seems blind to the reality that it is legal trade and talk about legal trade that is fuelling speculation and poaching.

Legalising ivory trade in 2008, when South Africa sold part of its ivory stocks to China, lead to exponential growth in elephant poaching, illegal trade and the price of raw ivory.

South Africa’s continuing desire to apply to the international community for legal rhino horn sales at the CITES (Convention on international trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) meeting due to be held there in 2016 is doing nothing to dampen down rhino poaching and restore protection to this beleaguered species.

Other countries, longstanding supporters of wildlife trade, such as Botswana and Tanzania, are seemingly more in tune with the growing international agenda of zero tolerance. Botswana has declared that it will put its ivory stockpile beyond commercial use (and has introduced a ban on trophy hunting), while Tanzania’s President has committed to the destruction of his country’s 80 tonne ivory mountain (a staggering 180,000 pounds of ivory).

Unless South Africa seriously revises its current strategy towards wildlife utilisation, especially when it concerns species under severe pressure right across Africa, it is in danger of finding itself increasingly isolated as the rest of the world falls in step with the new zero tolerance agenda.

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February 14th, 2014

Over the last two years or more Born Free and its supporters, the conservation movement, in fact, the world at large, has become increasingly alarmed by the unfolding  of a wildlife tragedy – the decimation of iconic species fuelled by the trade in their body parts.

As many as 50,000 elephants, more than  1,000 rhino lost in 2013 alone.  Half of Africa’s lions gone in the last three decades.  Just 3,200 tigers clinging to survival.

What could we do?

Fight back!

Piece by piece a picture emerged portraying in detail the challenges we need to overcome. Improved wildlife law enforcement; ending consumer demand; increased public education; better intelligence gathering; effective judicial training; the introduction of deterrent sentencing…….. each on their own not enough to tackle the problem but together a comprehensive agenda designed to turn the tide.

And the game-changer?

The realisation that illegal wildlife trade, like any other serious organised criminal activity, destroys people’s lives, disrupts communities, increases instability and, linked as it is with the terror-driven activities of rebel militias as Al-Shabaab and the Lord’s Resistance Army, has the potential to hurt and damage us all.

That is why, although I am entirely convinced that the world’s leaders do care about the future of species,  it has become a political priority and why the UK government, led by the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister, convened the High Level Meeting on Illegal Wildlife Trade on 13th February and the results of that Conference – real political will, international co-ordination, increased resources, the destruction of a number of ivory stockpiles, a zero-tolerance approach to illegal trade and the contemplation that hitherto legal trade should be halted when the risk to the species are so great, lead me to believe that a line has been drawn  – so far and no further.

Delegates to that Conference have nailed their colours to the mast.  Now we must make sure they deliver on their promises.  Every step we take from now on must incrementally make the world safer and more secure for wildlife under threat, for habitats under pressure and for communities that live on the edge.

Born Free is and has been at the forefront of this fight for more than a quarter of a century. We will be here leading the fight into the future and I hope that each every one of you, our loyal supporters, will be with us as we play our part in securing a future for wildlife – and for people – worth living.

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WAZA: World Association of Zoo Apologists?

January 28th, 2014

Recent films such as Blackfish and The Cove have captured public attention and provoked global outrage about the plight of whales and dolphins. The Cove specifically focussed on the barbaric and brutal drive hunt fisheries in Taiji, Japan, where – year-on-year – dolphins and other small cetaceans are herded by boats into coastal bays and penned. In the subsequent days, some are selected for a lifetime in captivity in dolphinaria in Japan or overseas, while many others are – to put it bluntly yet honestly – brutally speared and hacked to death. The water, literally, turns red.

Despite international condemnation, including strong words from Caroline Kennedy, the United States Ambassador to Japan, the drive hunts continue and this month has seen yet another rash of heartbreaking news and photographs highlighting the atrocities meted out on these intelligent marine mammals in this small coastal town in Japan.

The association between the captive industry and the hunts is all too apparent. Several dolphinaria in Japan have reportedly received cetaceans from the Taiji hunt, including the Taiji Whale Museum which lies little more than a stone’s throw from the killing bays. And many have joined in the worldwide expressions of disgust and outrage, including the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA) which has issued a statement appearing to condemn the hunt in no uncertain terms: WAZA “strongly condemns the Taiji dolphin drive hunt” and “is deeply concerned about this practice and is taking all action possible to help stop it”.

However, all may not be as it seems. While WAZA correctly points out that no Japanese dolphinaria are individual members of WAZA, it glosses over the fact that the Japanese Association of Zoos and Aquariums (JAZA) is an organisational member of WAZA. JAZA’s membership includes several dolphinaria long-associated with the drive hunt including the Taiji Whale Museum.

So, it seems to me that WAZA cannot on the one hand claim to be deeply concerned, while on the other continuing to promote the work of a national association that permits its members to benefit from brutality and seemingly to avoid taking action against any of its organisational members who are involved.

But that’s the problem: as with other national and regional zoo associations across the globe, it appears that there are no real sanctions, no genuine incentive to uphold better standards of welfare and ethics. Zoo associations exist, first and foremost, to advance the interests of their member zoos. If a zoo is caught breaking their (voluntary) codes of practice, the worst that can happen is that zoo’s membership of the association is suspended or terminated. And what does that mean to the offending zoo? In most cases, very little.

Zoo associations such as WAZA must be clear: does membership even remotely guarantee higher standards of welfare and ethics, standards that the public worldwide increasingly expect, or is membership little more than an exercise in mutual back-slapping and collective self-promotion by facilities that, in some cases, have no qualms about flying in the face of public expectations and common sense?

The eyes of the world are on the people of Taiji, the Japanese Government and now WAZA. Will the world’s biggest Zoo Association use its influence to help bring the barbaric Taiji slaughter to an end with all the powers at its disposal and will it expel any of its members and organisational supporters who either tolerate, support or are even involved in such a heinous act.

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