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Wildlife Beauty vs. Business Beast?

Whale-Shark-Aquarium-Georgia-USA

Photo: Whale Shark Aquarium Georgia-USA

 

This could be the plot for a new movie of Walt-Disney-Productions: A young, beautiful and idealistic conservation activist fights the plan of a smart entrepreneur who tries very skillfully to convince the local authorities and costal communities of the entrepreneur’s project, to cage the biggest fish on earth and use it as a tourist attraction. This might be a quite simplified and striking statement in the way like “The Beauty And The Beast“. But having a closer look to this matter, one could get this impression quite easily.

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Volker Bassen | Photo: ZDF-planet-e

The entrepreneur’s name is Volker Bassen, a Swede with German roots who lives at the Kenyan coast since the early 1990’s.
According to his own information, he is an under-water film director, a pilot, a dive instructor, a camera man, a captain, a fisher man and – this is what it’s here about – the founder of the EAST AFRICAN WHALE SHARK TRUST (EAWST).

A real entrepreneur who also knows to use the media for his goals. About two month ago, a documentary was shown on German television about Bassen’s  controversial project of an open sea enclosure for whale sharks at Kenya’s Diani Beach, a famous tourist spot in the south of Mombasa.

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Raabia Hawa | Wildlife and Nature Conservation Activist

Raabia Hawa, Bassen’s major opponent, is well known in Kenya and can likely be called a media star. Hawa is presenting her three-hour radio show ”This Is Life” every Saturday morning on Metro East FM Radio in Nairobi. More than that, she is managing a network of environmental activists and works as an honorary warden for the KENYA WILDLIFE SERVICE (KWS), which is the official Kenyan wildlife authority.

Nevertheless, the term ‘honorary warden’ might be a little confusing: Instead of sitting behind a big wooden desk she is giving the fight against poaching a face in the public by organizing demonstrations, info-events and often being invited to TV-Shows as an expert. Beside that, she is also operating on patrol with the KWS-park-rangers out in the bush destroying traps to make the poachers bloody work as difficult as possible. Being a beautiful young lady, she is anything but touchy and goes where it hurts, where the sun burns the savannah and where you get blisters on your feet of hours of marching. So she is extremely respected by the professional park-rangers.

 

With the EAWST, Volker Bassen’s venture plan is to establish a free-water aquarium constructed with polyethylene nets, which should be held on the sea ground with heavy anchor chains and at the surface with buoys. Thus, the nets should form a circle of about 16.000 square meters by a diameter of 600 meters, which could be extended later up to an enclosure with a length of 2.000 meters and 600 meters width, in case the responsible authority and the local community agrees.

Part of the plan is a research station under cooperation of  several top scientists, because from the scientific point of view most aspects of the whale shark’s life is unknown. The station should also have a protection and care station for insured marine creatures of any kind plus a program to breed whale sharks in captivity.

The whole project shall be financed by tourism, so, Bassen says, Kenya would be the only country worldwide where tourists can swim with the biggest fish in the mornings and watch the biggest land animals like elephants and rhinos in the afternoon. There are enough examples which proves that wildlife conservation and tourism are consistent with each other and complementary. In this case, it is hardly controversial and it can be definitely doubted.

 

Over a period of six months Bassen would like to start holding two whale sharks in captivity. The enclosure will be watched permanently 24/7. If the sharks show a single indication of stress, they would be set free at once. A Japanese engineer will be hired to construct the enclosure – Japanese scientists have been researching whale sharks in captivity for about 30 years – and they did trials over more than a year to make sure that no other marine creatures get caught in the net.

Everyone who knows about the current off shore the Kenyan coast line has to admit, it would be a pretty adventurous venture. The current is changing, according to the season from north to south and vice versa, additionally to the daily tide from east to west and back.

By all means, it will need some experienced professional divers to watch a net of several kilometers and keep it free of seaweed, floating waste and whatever else is floating around the ocean. Nobody can guarantee that no other creatures, like sea turtles for example, will get caught in the meshes!

If there would be a lack of control just for a several days, the mix of organic material of any kind will evolve a steady growing catchment for the current. This will create such a powerful pressure that can hardly be controlled. Possibly the material which fills the meshes over night might be enough to bring the whole enclosure in serious difficulties during heavy current or wind.

 

It is absolutely alright and important of Volker Bassen and the EAWST to point on the decreasing population of the whale shark and to develop models to help the fish to recover. “Use them or lose them” is his motto to anybody who blames him for just being interested in the business with tourists. In 2006, the EAWST performed an expedition by tagging whale sharks in marking a few animals with GPS senders. During this expedition, they watched 58 specimens over 14 days. In 2012, there were only six fish. That is how they got the plan to build an enclosure instead of taking the tourists out to the wide open sea – because there are no whale sharks to watch anymore. Nobody knows exactly why this shark increasingly avoids the Kenyan coast line, because in general there is very little knowledge about the biggest fish on earth.

 

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Raabia Hawa | Burning of seized ivory

And this is the point where Raabia Hawa argues absolutely straightforward: How can anyone keep a fish of such an enormous size in an enclosure when there is nearly no knowledge about its habits and needs? But that much is absolutely obvious: the shark must swim to eat. Only in swimming constantly, the shark is able to let plankton and other small marine creatures float into its huge mouth. Some specimens are wandering thousands of kilometers all across the world seas, others stay in almost the same area. Some dive down to 1.500 meters and more, others only move near the sea surface.

Regarding to this, is an enclosure of  600 meters diameter with a water depth of about 17 meters big enough? Nevertheless, this shark always came across the Kenyan coast line only two times a year: Once in March and back again in October. When it comes more rare now, there might be less plankton or maybe of some absolute different reasons.

According to his website, Volker Bassen wants to offer tourists a three-hour-excursion for €120,00.  This includes: Lectures about the biology of whale sharks; marine awareness in general; and a dive for about one hour with the gentle giants.

Raabia Hawa is not really against the combination of tourism and animal protection. What she is fighting against is caging animals in enclosures. Her point of view is, that one has failed already when animals are caged to protect them. In general, we have to protect animals in their natural habitat. This is the combination of animal protection and nature conservation. Therefore, she disgustedly labels Bassen’s Seaquarium as a ”submarine-zoo“ and accuses him, facing the fact that he was fishing all kind of sharks himself until a few years ago, only to run his pure business interests under the label of marine research and whale shark protection.

 

So for what reason, a fish of such a size should be caged which is used to wander several thousand miles a year across the vast seas? It probably would lose its seasonal rhythm if it got caged for six months at one place and maybe got disturbed in its ability of reproducing fundamentally or reaching its feeding areas at the right time.

Also, Dr. David Obura, a scientist for marine ecosystems and coordinator of the research and development organization CORDIO says: “There is no way such a species that migrates more than 3,000km annually and dives down to 1,000m, can be happily confined to a shallow sea pond with no possible escape from tourist stress, no ability to feed naturally, nor seek out the natural conditions that suit it at different times of the year, nor socialize.”

Bassen argues to the conservationists that we are caging big land animals in parks, so what is so bad in doing the same with whale sharks? But isn’t there a big difference between vast park reservations where elephants, rhinos and all others can even cross national borders, and a 16.000 square meter marine enclosure?

But beside of all that there are more upcoming questions regarding the daily operations: what happens during a heavy storm? And storms are not quite rare at the Kenyan coast. Will the Seaquarium stand such heavy winds and current? Will the enclosure be anchored stable enough or will the net be torn away with its chains on the sea ground? One thing is for sure: nobody can expect of experienced scuba divers to risk their lives in watching the enclosure during a heavy storm. How will the whale sharks be fed if there is no seasonal plankton anymore? An adult fish needs about 30kg food a day. It’s liable that NEMA, the Kenyan conservation authority which Bassen wants to approve his application, will ask such and other questions.

 

One thing is absolutely clear by now: It would help significantly if the Kenyan fishermen would stop haunting the whale shark. They are doing this – after they have almost killed all other smaller sharks in the area – of its liver oil which they call “Sifa” and use to protect their wooden fishing boats from shipworm infestation.

Instead of shark liver oil they could also use cashew nut shell oil, the EAWST says. The nut shell oil is as effective as the liver oil to protect the boats and would be a nice alternative that will save whale sharks.

A look on the EAWST website shows the organization has also a plan of producing and distributing the cashew shell oil. There are plenty of cashew farms along the coast and it would also create some jobs in the communities.

But why should a fisherman pay money for the nut shell oil when they can get the shark liver oil for free? And they don’t really understand what is so important in protecting the whale shark anyway. They don’t even eat the shark’s meat because they think it is toxic. To them the whale shark’s value is the liver oil and that’s it. Without a strict prohibition of shark hunting followed by hard penalties, such a program will not have a chance to work.

After several technical problems with the nets, chains and his boats and due to the massive protest of Raabia Hawa and her conservationists-network, Volker Bassen let rest all activities regarding his venture. He wants to avoid to jeopardize the approval of his application at the NEMA. The Kenyan authority is supposed to make decision about Volker’s request and his Seaquarium this coming fall season.

 

NEMA-Report

NEMA Report

According to latest news by Raabia Hawa, the NEMA rejected Volker Bassen’s proposal to create his artificial marine enclosure for wild caught whale sharks for the following reasons:

The proposed project
– denied whale sharks their right to exist in their natural habitat
– did not adequately engage with local communities
– did not recognize that whale shark tourism can be promoted in the wild without capturing these animals
– would have been in contravention of Kenya’s 1962 Animal Cruelty Act

But this seems not to be the end of the story because Volker Bassen will not give up and plans another proposal (EIA).

 

 

 

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4 Responses to "Wildlife Beauty vs. Business Beast?"

  1. Having read the above article I feel compelled to answer some of the flaws you made.
    First of all you portray me as a “beast” which makes me sad, I do admit that Ms Hawa is a beautiful woman and I admire her for some of her contributions towards protecting our precious wildlife. The irony is that we are both on the same side, both conservationists, her on land, me in the sea. The true beast is the shark fin tragedy, not me. I frankly speaking don’t give a toss whether I make money or not from this project as long as my message gets through and the local community shares the profit from tourist who will pay to see and swim with these majestic fish.
    The beauty and the beast does have a happy ending, let’s hope that you are right in that regard at least.
    Regarding you statement “the project will be financed by tourists” it’s totally wrong; the project has been financed by private investors who all share the opinion that we need to showcase these majestic fish in order to incite the desire to conserve them. This is nothing new, we have been doing exactly the same with our land animals for decades.
    You continuously mention “stream” I suppose you mean currents? The enclosure design has been proven already (for more than 30 years) in Japan during heavy typhoons lasting several days, we do not have such severe storms in Kenya but chose to plan for such an event “better safe than sorry” was applied while designing the enclosure. It will be access able 24/7, 365 days per year by trained divers although closed to the public during bad weather.
    “Size does matter” and you mention “cage” There is a huge difference between an enclosure which is a 100 times bigger than the worlds biggest aquarium (keeping 4 whale sharks) and twice as deep. Describing the enclosure as a “cage” would be as describing Mwaluganje elephant sanctuary as a “cage” If you consider the area of the Mwaluganje elephant sanctuary and divide the numbers of Elephants and other animals being held there you will see that it’s pretty much the same size as the Waa whale shark enclosure (per animal) Also; you can’t put sharks in a cage, it’s called aquariums. Divers are sometimes put in cages in order to protect them from sharks, not the other way around.

    Another flaw “nobody can guarantee that turtles will not get caught in the meshes” surely you means netting? The sea trials were conducted in Kenya, not Japan. However, Japanese engineers who helped us with the design kept these factors in mind and not a single marine animal (including fish, or God forbid, turtles) were caught during a 9 month sea trials. Needless to say: it would defeat the purpose of having a marine sanctuary were we to catch (and kill) the animals we want to protect!

    Regarding Obura’s statement (Obura is a coral researcher) happiness is a human attribute, it is important to distinguish between human emotions compared to a whale shark with a brain size of a walnut. A well-fed whale shark is a “happy shark” We do intend to feed our whale sharks whilst under our care, this is probably the easiest aspect of the entire project and should be of no concern. Also, the whale shark is not a whale (whales being highly intelligent do socialize) the whale shark is a solitary animal and does not “socialize” as stated by Obura.

    You also refer to “cod-liver oil”?! The cod is a cold water fish species that does not frequent tropical waters. The fishermen are using SHARK LIVER OIL, NOT COD LIVER OIL! Shark liver oil is called sifa and without it the fishermen would loose their livelihood since shipworm would eat up their wooden boats within a couple of seasons. Cashew nut shell oil is the only (and perfect) alternative available to combat the demand for sifa. On that note, you are wrong once again. Not all fishermen catch sharks, only a small percentage. However ALL fishermen who have a wooden boat along the East African coast will require shark liver oil in order to protect their boats at least once per year. With our global shark stock dwindling the price of sifa has risen to about 8000 Ksh (100U$) for a 20 liter jerrycan compared to 1000 Ksh ten years ago. How did you come up with the idea that fishermen can require shark liver oil for free?! It’s big business for them, after all, a 6 meter juvenile whale shark contains about 4-500 liters of this increasingly sought after oil. Cashew nut shell oil prices are about a quarter, at 2000 Ksh per jerrycan.

    Regarding my “media” expertise and the German ZDF crew. THEY approached ME, not the other way around, I am sure Mr Jurg Brase of ZDF can confirm this. You are accrediting me with my publicity skills, you should accredit Obura, the Born Free Foundation and Raabia Hawa (including yourself) for THEIR publicity stunt, I am merely defending my beliefs, nothing else.

    Finally; most of our game-park wardens during “the olden days” were ex-hunters who recognized the need to protect the species, implementing protected areas on land and often fencing (“caging”?) off areas in order to protect the animals. Portraying me as a shark fishermen, even shark-finner (Raabia Hawa 2012) is not fair. I have made no secret of me being involved in fishing, even commercial fishing but this was more than a decade ago. Maybe I should have stuck to killing fish and sharks for their commercial value? How silly of me trying to teach the local fishermen that a live shark is by far more valuable than a dead one. Ask yourself this: with the value of a single dorsal whale shark fin reaching prices in excess of 50.000 U$ (Gallager 2004) and with my expertise of catching them, why didn’t I? After all, it’s perfectly legal for me to do so here in Kenya since there is no protection in place for these gentle giants whatsoever! Instead I tagged 20 whale sharks with pop-off archival satellite tags (note: not a “few” as stated in your article) at a cost of 5000 U$ per tag, an unprecedented event worldwide. Would I have caught every shark I tagged I would have made a profit exceeding a million dollars (not only the dorsal fin is of great value, even the pectoral fins and the lower part of the caudal fin) I often get the question nowadays; Volker, how are your whale sharks doing? A very disheartening question.. After all, what are YOU doing for YOUR whale sharks? I have a plan, it might not be the perfect plan and I agree that everything must be carefully planned with the welfare of these fish being our outmost priority. But unless someone comes up with a better plan I will go ahead despite all this criticism, rest assured.

    Sincerely

    Volker Bassen

    • Peter Graves says:

      Dear Volker,

      I appreciate your reply very much and I thank you for the additional information. This is exactly what comment forums actually are for.

      At first I need to clear up that it was never my intention to offend you in any way by calling you “beast” in the headline of the article. I also want to make clear that I didn’t portray you as a beast, I just called you “beast” in the headline, but portrayed you as an entrepreneur. I deeply hope you will get the difference and I apologize if I hurted your feelings in any way.

      When you want an article to be read, you need a headline which let readers stop… and klick on it… that’s it. Therefore I used this title as a powerful metaphor to the well known old french tale. But I understand if you can’t see it from a humorous point after struggling for your venture that long. So, no hard feelings please.

      Concerning to the “flaws” of my article, I gathered all information I could find about your project and assembled it to a story by using common sense. Amongst others I also found sources of information in form of weblinks on your website, which I studied at first. So basically it couldn’t be all that wrong.

      Regarding turtles might get caught: The enclosure in Japan looked built with solid walls. You use nets with 20cm meshes which was shown in the ZDF documentary and in your own video filmed in Japan. This leads me to the risks during storms, because a net is floppy compared to solid walls, especially the way you want to hold it on the ground and at the surface by using chains and buoys.

      I also think, wether David Obura is a coral expert or not, the size of an animals brain is not a criteria to think, this animal couldn’t realize that something has changed fundamentally in its habitat. And also solitary animals will sozialize when their natural instinct tells them to reproduce. But then they have to wander to find a partner.

      I have to thank you in correcting my mistake, assuming that the liver oil would be free or at least cheaper to get as nut shell oil. I couldn’t find any information about that before.

      So, regardless our different opinions and some little flaws in my article, I think you have to accept that your project is highly controversial and questionable, and that other people has different opinions and point of views.
      You will be criticized for it forever, no matter whether NEMA will approve it one day or not. This will never change and you will have to live with it. I hope you are aware of that. Don’t you think there are better ways to help the whale shark, without the need to justify yourself again and again? Maybe in fighting against waste in the seas, for instance?

      Sincerely
      Peter Graves

  2. Steve Capone says:

    To whom it may concern,

    At first look this article may seem full of information and of some
    contribution to the issue. There are some accurate facts presented,
    however there is an overall condescending tone, biased views and
    repeated mention of incorrect and poorly worded information. Constant
    use of the word ‘cage’ or ‘caged’ begins from the very first paragraph
    setting the tone for the entire article. There are many references
    that are unfounded, without merit and simply incorrect. Lets begin
    with the incorrect, misleading statements;

    -The Japanese did not construct the net, they were merely consulted.
    They also did not carry out sea trials of the net. These activities
    were carried by highly trained divers and marine experts from the
    Whale Shark Adventures team.

    – In 2006 more than 20 whale sharks were tagged…quite a bit more
    than ‘a few animals’ as downplayed by the author. Furthermore the
    results of this tagging research were not mentioned.

    – Cod Liver Oil is not found naturally in Kenya, only in the health stores

    – Fishermen do pay for shark liver oil when they don’t catch sharks to
    produce it themselves. This has become the standard as in recent years
    the worldwide shark finning tragedy has reduced the global shark
    populations dramatically.

    – The author’s repeated reference to ‘streams’ in the ocean. There is
    no such term in relation to oceanography or marine biology.

    Now lets look at some dubious comments from the author and my reply below;

    ‘There are enough examples of wildlife conservation and tourism..being
    copmlementary’ …’in this case… it can be definitely doubted’

    Where are the examples of these complementary success stories?!

    ‘Is the enclosure of 600 meters and 17 meters deep big enough?’

    The enclosure will be a Seaquarium, in the whale sharks natural
    habitat, 100 times larger than the artificial aquarium in Georgia, USA
    currently holding 4 whale sharks.

    I would hope that in the future that this publication would review the
    articles to be published for fact and accuracy within recognized
    journalistic standards.

    Sincerely,

    Steve Capone

  3. Peter Graves says:

    I would like to thank the commentators for their references regarding my mistakes in using the wrong designations “stream” for “current” and “cod liver oil” for “shark oil”. It has been corrected.

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