It is a simple, stark picture that has shocked and appalled animal welfare groups. In the grey cargo hold of a Hongkong Airlines Boeing 733F cargo plane, five dolphins lie constrained in coffin-shaped plastic funnels surrounded by a clumsy makeshift structure of poles and straps.
The fins of two of them clearly visible, the dolphins in the photograph are being flown from Osaka in Japan to Hanoi in Vietnam, with a two-hour refueling stop at Hong Kong International Airport en route — meaning they spent at least seven hours lying motionless in the cargo hold.
Disoriented, bombarded by the noise of jet engines and almost certainly sedated, the plight of the dolphins in the picture is a rare insight into the harsh realities of the animal entertainment industry and might be considered something the airline would prefer to keep under wraps.
On the contrary: The image, believed to have been taken by an airline employee, was circulated to Hongkong Airlines staff along with a memo congratulating the employees involved in the Jan 16 operation and trumpeting how much profit it generated for the company.
“It is the first time for Hongkong Airlines to fly this kind of large live animal in its history,” the memo reads. “The smooth handling of such special cargo which is time sensitive and vulnerable, demonstrates that Hongkong Airlines cargo handling capability has further improved.”
The memo goes on: “The B733F fleet utilization rate is increased by operating this charter flight during the aircraft spare time, and an extra cargo revenue income of HK$850,000 (including our own cargo sales income on the position sectors) has been achieved, which equivalent to HK$77,000 per block hour.”
Hongkong Airlines, the memo suggests, is so pleased with the outcome that it hopes to do further similar transfers in future. “Based on the experience we have obtained this time, Hong Kong Airlines cargo will develop the business onwards,” it says.
One airline employee who saw the memo said: “I was astonished that management thought it was a good idea to circulate this memo and picture with no mention whatsoever about the welfare of the dolphins. It seems very insensitive and ill-judged.”
Hongkong Airlines repeatedly declined to respond to a series of questions from the China Daily about where the dolphins came from and were going to, whether they were wild-caught and whether any of the animals died or were injured during the transportation process.
However, because the dolphins were flown from Osaka, animal welfare groups say there is a strong possibility they came from the notoriously bloody annual round-up of dolphins in Taiji, Japan, made famous by the Oscar-winning 2009 documentary The Cove.
That film showed how dolphins are herded into a cove where hundreds of animals not picked out for sale or export are slaughtered for their meat in a process that turns the water of the bay red with blood.
The destination for the dolphins flown by Hongkong Airlines, animal welfare groups believe, is likely to have been one of a number of theme parks in Vietnam that stage sea life performances. Theme parks pay up to $150,000 per animal exclusive of transportation fees to import highly intelligent bottlenose dolphins capable of being trained for shows.
One possible locations, a theme park in the popular Halong Bay resort two hours’ drive from the airport in Hanoi where many visitors are from Chinese mainland, advertises “dolphin, beluga and seal shows” three times a day as well as a crocodile, monkey and bear theatre.
As far as campaigners against the increasingly beleaguered dolphin industry are concerned, Hongkong Airlines is guilty of animal cruelty by getting involved in transporting the creatures and may now risk an angry backlash from passengers.
Environmentalist Mark Berman, director of the US-based Earth Island Institute and a colleague of The Cove filmmaker Ric O’Barry in campaigns against the wild dolphin captures, said: “Dolphins belong in the ocean — not in a tank, netted pens and certainly not on planes.
“These shipments, regardless of what those involved in this disgusting traffic in dolphins claim, are abuse, plain and simple. Any time dolphins are removed from their families there is destruction of the social network. The trauma leads to early death from stress.
“This is nothing more than a violent kidnapping. Hongkong Airlines should be boycotted for this for this inhumane, money-grabbing contract to traffic in dolphins that may come from a deplorable and inhumane capture from the Taiji cove.”
Samuel Hung, chairman of the Hong Kong Dolphin Conservation Society, said: “If this plane took off from Osaka airport, it’s almost definite that the dolphins will be from Taiji where they have the dolphin drive and hunt. That will raise a lot of international concern.
“Because of the film The Cove, a lot of people know about the Taiji dolphin hunt in Japan and places like Ocean Park in Hong Kong go to lengths to distance themselves from that trade, because it is so horrific and everyone condemns it.
“Anyone who has watched The Cove and knows about the Taijin dolphin drive will be very upset to learnt that a Hong Kong airline might be in any way involved in that kind of dirty business. A lot of carriers would not get involved in those shipments because they don’t want a bad name to be attached to them from the Taiji dolphin hunt.”
Hung said he believed the picture of the dolphins confined in plastic funnels in the cargo hold were particularly damaging for Hongkong Airlines. “It is understandable in some ways from the logistical point of view,” he said. “They usually give the dolphins sedatives and I guess they want them constrained so they don’t have much room to move around in order to transport them safely.
“But it makes for a really horrible picture. Imagine if you tried to transport a person from one place to another, under sedative and inside something that looks like a coffin.”
Hung said he would have liked the Hong Kong government to step in and block the handling of any live dolphins through its ports. “Don’t our authorities have any right to stop this kind of shipment?” he asked.
Janet Walker, head of Hong Kong Dolphinwatch, said she was shocked by the memo circulated to staff by Hongkong Airlines. “They should be ashamed of themselves, crowing about how much money they’ve made out of the sheer misery they’ve put these dolphins through,” she said. “Obviously sheer greed has overridden any sense of decency or compassion towards fellow creatures.
“Given the point of origin and the fact that Taiji is in the middle of hunting season, it’s highly likely that the animals have already been through the terrifying experience of being hunted down and separated from family and social groups while other dolphins are slaughtered and bleeding to death around them.
“To then be transported in such appalling conditions for a prolonged length of time must have caused them extreme distress. Flying is tough on human ears — it must be agony for creatures such as dolphins who navigate and communicate by sophisticated sonar.
“It is absolute torture for an animal that swims many miles a day to be wrapped in a plastic sheet and confined in a semi-dry space like this.”
Walker said the picture of the dolphins in the cargo hold sent a lesson to anyone who paid to see live dolphin shows, including those staged at Ocean Park in Hong Kong where some dolphins are imported while others are bred in captivity.
“All those people who still go to dolphin shows and think the animals look happy might want to think about how the animals got there and how much they suffered en route,” she said. “That ticket money is lining the pockets of Hongkong Airlines and contributing to animal cruelty.
“I can only hope that Hongkong Airlines’ pride in being involved in this enterprise turns to shame when this becomes known.”
Sandy Macalister, executive director of the Hong Kong Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, said the Hongkong Airlines memo appeared to result from “ignorance”. “It’s awful,” he said. “They see it as something lucrative and don’t seem to be aware of the suffering of these poor animals. I don’t think they’ve got a clue.”
“Our view is that Hongkong Airlines has a responsibility to know the full facts and background of what they are contributing to. If these dolphins were captured from the wild, it is inexcusable that a responsible company would facilitate such a thing.”
Asked about the Hongkong Airlines transfer of the dolphins, a spokeswoman for the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD) confirmed that officials were notified in advance of the dolphins’ stopover in Hong Kong. However, no inspection took place because the animals did not leave the plane.
“This consignment of five dolphins was on transit via Hong Kong from Japan to Vietnam on Jan 16,” the spokeswoman said in a statement. “The agent had notified AFCD of the shipment in advance and provided copies of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) documents which were found in order.
“Under the Public Health (Animals and Birds) Ordinance, if the consignment has to be removed from the aircraft, importers are required to apply for a permit with AFCD. As far as we know, the animals remained in the same aircraft during its transit route for around two hours before departing Hong Kong.”
The China Daily made repeated approaches to Hongkong Airlines by phone and by email, giving a list of questions and asking for its response to criticisms of the transport of the dolphins from animal welfare groups.
Hong Kong Airlines Corporate Communications Manager Catherine Yick agreed to accept questions by email but then offered no response. Reached by phone later, Yick referred inquiries to her colleague, Hongkong Airlines Spokeswoman Cecilia Pan, who said the company was unable to provide immediate responses to the questions put by China Daily or to respond to the criticisms.
“We are working on collecting the facts upon your inquiries,” Pun said in an email. However, when pressed on whether the airline intended to issue any response, she did not reply.
We’d think twice about dolphin flights
Hong Kong’s leading airline Cathay Pacific is believed to have carried dolphins in the past and has no rules banning their transport — but in today’s sensitive climate it carefully examines the details of any animal shipment before deciding whether to go ahead with it.
As a result, it is thought to be years since the airline last carried live dolphins and animal welfare groups believe the airline is unlikely to be prepared to risk the potential bad publicity of taking any orders from the dolphin trade in future.
“Animal welfare is a core value to which we are fully committed,” a spokeswoman for the airline said. “Cathay Pacific fully complies with all applicable international regulations regarding shipment of live animals.
“In addition to regulatory compliance, we do carefully look into the purpose, the shippers, the destination and the method of carriage for any rare or fragile animal cargo before we decide whether or not to carry it.”
The spokeswoman added: “We are always open to dialogue with environmental NGOs, reaching out to them and working with them towards sustainability in all aspects of our operation. We do share with them a common objective and a lot of common ground.”
In an illustration of the highly sensitive nature of dolphin transfers, Cathay Pacific was attacked last year by environmental pressure group Sea Shepherd after its cargo facility in Osaka was used to handle a shipment of dolphins being flown by another airline to Chinese mainland.
The spokeswoman said: “Cathay Pacific Airways did not carry the dolphin shipment that the (Sea Shepherd) report refers to, and that there is no evidence of any non-compliance of applicable international regulations.
“In this particular case, our only indirect involvement is that the shipment was handled at one stage by our cargo handling agent in Osaka on behalf of another airline, as the cargo handling agent serves other airline as well.”
She stressed: “As an airline, Cathay Pacific is prohibited by law from raising with another airline (questions about) what shipments they are carrying.”