Each year, as many will be aware, a 'tradition' happens in a far flung corner of Japan, in a small cove in a fishing town called Taiji.
The tradition is the slaughter on an epic scale of one of the world's most loved and most intelligent mammals. Each and every year the same - around 1,000 dolphins and small whales killed, against a backdrop of international condemnation and against a standard response of "this is our culture, do not interfere".
But what's the truth behind this slaughter, which the Japanese government has done its absolute best to cover up as outrage and awareness grows year on year (and helped massively by the Oscar winning documentary The Cove in 2009)?
What was once played out in plain view is now a much more hidden event. Where once the seas turned blood red, now they are more blue. So did something change? Yes, something did - Taiji tried to go underground to mask the brutality of this annual slaughter. In the words of the fisherman interviewed on The Cove "if the world finds out what goes on here, we'll be shut down."
Now, every year, the whole cove is covered in advance with huge sheets of tarpaulin. Activists and spectators from around the world can still watch the sight of dolphins being herded to their imminent death, separated from their pod (with which, just like you with your family, they have deep social connections), and dragged by their roped fin backwards (which can cause suffocation) into the cove.
But, then the show's over folks - all the killing is now done out of sight.
Out of sight, but not out of mind.
So just why is there no blood anymore? Well, you know when you have a bottle of red wine and you put a cork in it to stop it spilling? Imagine that, but on a dolphin.
Since around 2008 at Taiji the Japanese have adapted a new 'humane' method of slaughtering dolphins. This involves piercing their skin just behind the blow-hole with a metal pole and thrusting into their spinal cord area. Just to ensure that it looks 'humane' too, the 'fishermen' take the liberty of immediately putting a wooden wedge in the dolphin's wound to stop the blood pouring into the sea (to avoid sea pollution as they put it).
This method, which according to a paper by Iwasaki and Kai, which validated this technique, serves to achieve a quicker and more humane death. But trust me, it is far from quick and far from humane. A report by Andrew Butterworth et al in 2013, based on behavioural and veterinary analysis of some truly horrific footage (which you can watch on YouTube if you can bear it) filmed with a telephoto lens under the tarps shows the exact opposite.
Butterworth states that the time to die is in fact very long, up to seven minutes. He also notes that this practice would not be tolerated or accepted for commercially farmed animals being prepared for slaughter in the United States or Europe, and the regulations and guidelines governing the humane treatment and slaughter of animals in the United States and the United Kingdom prohibit the killing of an animal in the presence of other animals.
Sounds bad right? Remember though, it's all fine because it is culture. Or is it?
A long way from Taiji, people just like us pay good money to watch dolphins in captivity jumping through hoops and generally looking happy (they're always smiling remember - actually, come to think of it, even when they're watching their pod being brutally killed).
So, what's the link? The little known fact is that a vast number of dolphins rounded up at Taiji, emotionally scarred and traumatised, end up at dolphinariums around the world, assuming they survive the transportation - many don't. The youngest and prettiest are chosen, not killed, then shipped out to live the rest of their lives in a small pool, without all of the natural enrichment that their complex lives needs. Oh, for a vast amount of money. Tradition? Culture? Or just good old capitalism? You decide.
But, you may shout - it's fine, I'd only ever go to respectable places like SeaWorld or registered zoos and aquariums - there's no way they'd be part of this? True, Sea World wouldn't, they haven't taken dolphins from drive hunts for many years, but they have purchased captive mammals from parks who do use drive caught dolphins.
Registered zoos and aquariums aren't quite what they seem too - most are members of WAZA, the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which has standards and regulations, but also counts among its good friends JAZA, the Japanese Association of Zoos and Aquarium, who regularly 'stock up' on Taiji dolphins, as Associate Members.
Anyway, this is all by the by, tell it to your kid next time you're in Turkey, Egypt, Benidorm and they pick up a flyer for the local dolphinarium in the hotel lobby. The difficulty of this industry is that the giants like SeaWorld and their marketing machines create demand and the low budget copycats abuse this with worse standards and far from sound procurement policies.
It's so much like the ivory trade in China that I often speak about - the legal trade acts as an endorsement for the illegal trade, a mask for regulated to live alongside unregulated and damaging. In this case best practice masks worst practice.
The truth is that the Taiji dolphin drives, and similar, are abhorrent. There just is no place for them in modern society. There's only so much a 'cork' and some tarp can do to stem public opinion, but no one hears your opinion if you are silent.
Be their voice - join me, my colleagues from Care for the Wild and a whole bunch of people from Taiji Action Day for Dolphins at a protest outside the Japanese Embassy in London on Friday 21 February, from 12pm. You'll recognise me with my banner - it's a simple design based on the Japanese flag, but this time the red circle is a pool of blood.
Please listen, Japan, and end this. It's Cruelty NOT Culture.
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