Freedom Fighter

History was made in January 2006, when the Mexican government adopted legislation that modified the General Wildlife Act to ban almost all imports and exports of marine mammals and primates, including parts and products. Passage of this law sends a clear signal to other nations that Mexico will no longer tolerate the cruelty of the captive wildlife industry. Without the efforts of Dr. Yolanda Alaniz, vice president of Conservation of Marine Mammals in Mexico (COMARINO), the victory would never have been achieved.

Making Progress

If Keiko had not been rehabilitated in Iceland and successfully released to the wild in 1998, he would have died at the Mexico City facility pictured above. Thanks to a new Mexican law, marine mammals will no longer be taken from the wild to be used for exhibition. - Earth Island Institute

For more than 30 years, the Mexican captive marine mammal industry—one of the most powerful in the business—operated without any regulations. Then, in 2002, the capture of marine mammals in Mexican waters was prohibited. While native species were protected, the number of imports increased dramatically. Dolphins were captured in Cuba, Venezuela, Haiti and the Solomon Islands and brought to the country. Last year, seven arrived from Japan. "Everybody knows that these animals are obtained from the so-called 'drive fisheries' that take place in Taiji every year, killing thousands of dolphins," Alaniz said.

Building on the 2002 law, COMARINO has now succeeded in securing the passage of legislation that bans the importing and exporting of marine mammals and primates for exhibition purposes. Over 40 Mexican and international nonprofit groups joined with the organization in an unprecedented showing of solidarity, and committed individuals worked hard to ensure the bill's enactment. "Biologist Diego Cobo Terrazas, the former president of the Environmental Commission of the Chamber of Representatives, was the one who presented the initiative to Congress and did not stop until the Senate approved it," Alaniz said. "I am grateful to him and Laura Rojas, my colleague from COMARINO, who has worked closely with me every step of the way." Secretary of Environment Jose Luis Luege was also instrumental in the bill's ratification.

Marine Mammal Conservation

The ring-tailed lemur is one of over 7,000 primates who were trafficked in the last half-decade between Mexico and other countries. The ban on imports and exports will help these animals receive the protection they deserve - Eric Booth/Dreamstime.com

Dolphins rank at the top of the list of marine mammal species currently kept in captivity in Mexico, with about 250 held in resort and entertainment facilities. Sea lions are also affected. COMARINO reports elevated mortality rates of captive marine mammals due to poor husbandry, high levels of stress and depression, lack of veterinary care and physical injuries. All of these factors helped perpetuate a market for wildlife traffickers to capture more animals.

"We must remember that Keiko, the famous whale in Free Willy, was held in Mexico City in a very small tank until he nearly died," Alaniz said. "Now companies, veterinarians and trainers will have to improve the conditions of their captive facilities, from the water quality to the filtering and the quality of food. Veterinarians will have to work to keep their current inventory of animals healthy because going overseas to replace them will no longer be an option."

Primate Protection

"Primates are abused in so many ways, mostly in places frequented by tourists, such as Acapulco or Cancun," Alaniz said. Chimpanzees, macaques, baboons and squirrel, capuchin and titi monkeys are trafficked all over the world. Sadly, these wild animals were often brought to Mexico to be used as pets to draw the attention of tourists. "In many cases, monkeys are given alcohol to make people laugh. Most live with a rope or chain tied around their necks, and few are fed their natural foods," she explained. "Some live their whole lives in small cages. Others are used in circuses all over the country."

The new law will protect both captive and wild populations, and even the trade in parts and products is outlawed (except in cases approved by the Mexican government for use in scientific research). This is an essential conservation move, as families are often tragically broken apart when primates and marine mammals are brutally captured from the wild. Many animals die in transport to facilities because of the callous, aggressive handling they receive and the long distances they must travel. Unaccustomed to life in captivity, the creatures are unable to engage in their natural behaviors and are typically kept in small, barren enclosures. Additionally, they may transmit diseases.

Dolphin Swim-With Programs

The growth of captive dolphin facilities expanded during the 1990s, and by 2000, a new facility was opening every five to six months. Therefore, it is not surprising that the swim-with business is booming in tourist spots such as Cancun, Puerto Vallarta and Los Cabos. Tourists think it is a magical experience to share a few minutes with these creatures in an interactive way. But the facilities exploit both the dolphins and the tourists. "Everything they say to attract people is a lie. 'Education' and 'conservation' through swim-with programs are just myths that people who pay to interact with the dolphins are told to believe," Alaniz said. "From the moment these animals are captured until their death, the magnificence of dolphins, their instincts, intelligence and natural behaviors are nullified."

A swim-with session typically lasts less than one hour, and eight to 14 people swim with one or two dolphins. The cost per person ranges from $100 to $150, and each dolphin (most facilities have about 10 performing at a time) works three to four sessions a day. Dolphins caught in the wild cost as little as $400 each—this is the usual price paid to the fishermen. But COMARINO reports that Mexico's swim-with facilities would train the animals and then sell them to other countries at much higher prices—a trained dolphin ready to be exported costs around $100,000. "People don't realize that they are paying for the suffering and death of these creatures," Alaniz reinforced. "The dolphin industry exists because tourists pay for it."

About COMARINO

In 1998, Alaniz was volunteering for an association against cruelty to dogs and cats in Mexico City when they received a cruelty report against a captive dolphin and sea lion trainer. After she went to the show, she decided to do something—but there was no organization helping captive marine mammals. "Two years later, we started COMARINO, the only Mexican non-governmental organization devoted to protecting all marine life," she said. The organization is involved in promoting legislation for responsible fisheries, saving sharks from overfishing, and protecting marine mammals and turtles from ocean noise and bycatch.

As far as the captive industry workers' response to the ban, Alaniz is confident COMARINO will be able to uphold the protections and make sure the bill is properly enforced. "They are furious and will try to reverse the law—but it will not be easy now that we have the support of so many Mexican and international organizations," she said, adding that the hard work has paid off. "We've achieved more laws to protect animals in the last five years than the amount that was gained in the past three decades combined. At the end of the day, this is a fight for life and freedom."

You Can Make a Difference
Please contact the President of Mexico to thank him for approving this strengthening of the General Wildlife Act. Make sure to remind him that good border inspections are essential in making the law most effective.

President Vicente Fox
Residencia Oficial de los Pinos
Casa Miguel Aleman
Col. San Miguel Chapultepec
C.P. 11850
Distrito Federal, Mexico

email: vicente.fox.quesada@presidencia.gob.mx