Ancient customs used to justify dolphin slaughter
Most of the articles published on Ancient Origins advocate for the preservation of ancient cultures and customs around the world. But what happens when ancient customs conflict with modern-day beliefs? How far do we go in respecting another culture when that culture’s practices go against everything we may believe to be right and just? These are some of the difficult issues we must face in a world filled with diversity, issues which have been brought sharply into focus by a recent event in Japan – the annual dolphin hunt of Taiji Cove.
Over the weekend, Japanese fishermen from the village of Taiji drove an estimated 200-plus bottlenose dolphins into a local bay made notorious by the 2009 Oscar-winning documentary ‘The Cove’. Over the course of the weekend, some 51 were selected for sale and display in marine parks throughout the country, according to the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, which monitors the Taiji hunt. The remainder of the dolphins have been trapped with nothing to eat for more than 72 hours awaiting their slaughter, which is due to take place today.
While the practice is widely condemned in the West, the local people of Taiji argue that they are simply maintaining ancient traditions which have been around for centuries.
“We will pass down the history of our ancestors to the next generation, preserve it. We have a strong sense of pride about this,” said the Mayor of Taiji, Kazutaka Sangen.
Indeed the practice of hunting dolphins and whales dates back over 1,000 years in some areas of Japan. Fishermen would hunt the dolphin out of a necessity for food, and dolphin meat has long been considered a delicacy in the region. Many defend the practice as a local custom and say it is no different to the slaughter of other animals for meat. To the Japanese people of this coastal town, it is a way of life. It is what they have come to know and expect every year. It is their cultural tradition.
However, the traditional method of hunting is very different to that of today’s drive hunts, as is the motivation. Unlike ancient methods of hunting where fishermen would go out in small boats and spear those they could catch, the modern-day method of ‘drive hunting’ is carried out by a fleet of 13 high-speed boats equipped with radar and GPS which locate pods of dolphins or pilot whales and, using steel poles in the water, create an underwater wall of sound. The dolphins, which rely on sonar to navigate, are immediately disoriented and terrified and swim frantically to shore to escape the noise. Many die of cardiac failure in the process. There they are corralled into a small cove and trapped by nets; at sunrise the next morning they are herded into an adjacent “killing cove”. Dolphin trainers come to select the most "beautiful" dolphins for sale to aquariums while the rest remain, sometimes for days without food, until they are stabbed to death by hunters using harpoons, fish hooks, and knives. The scene is chaotic as thrashing dolphins try to escape, sometimes flinging themselves onto the rocky cliffs in desperate attempts to get away. The process of capture and killing over several days involves not only physical pain, but likely also extreme psychological distress.
Clearly the method of slaughter bears no similarity to the practices in ancient times, and nor do the motivations. Far from providing much-needed food for local people, the massacre at Taiji has become an extremely profitable industry – thousands of dolphins are slaughtered every year, their meat distributed throughout the country and abroad, and the sale of prized dolphins to marine parks fetching up to $150,000 per dolphin.
So what is it about the slaughter of the dolphins at Taiji that is so offensive to our modern day sensibilities? Is it true that the practice is no different from the slaughter of other animals used for meat? According to Ric O’Barry, a dolphin trainer turned activist who featured in ‘The Cove’: “There is no other animal, on sea or land, like the dolphin. We have spent decades and millions of dollars trying to communicate with them, but they are always trying to communicate directly with us. They are the only wild animal who has saved human lives — not a few times, but repeatedly through history.”
Dolphins and whales are highly intelligent and highly emotional animals with strong social ties, and the fact that the period of extreme distress can last days, it is difficult to think of a practice more cruel to animals anywhere in the world. But it is not only the dolphins that are slaughtered that suffer. Those that are sold on to aquariums to become performing animals face far greater suffering. According to the World Society for the Protection of Animals 53% of dolphins captured in drive hunts die in the first three months of captivity.
But what about the preservation of ancient tradition? Should we not respect the traditional customs and cultures that are different from our own?
History has demonstrated time and again that just because a custom has endured for centuries does not make it right. Many historical practices, such as human slavery, have been discontinued because they are considered inhumane by today’s standards. But sadly, many others continue.
To peacefully help solve the problem by education, understanding and cultural knowledge would create a global community of respect and gratitude, and that is far more important that the preservation of an ancient tradition that is both out-dated and cruel.
Tradition or not, isn’t it time to stop?