Hunt goes on as Keiko wins liberty

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WHILE MILLIONS of dollars are being lavished in an ambitious project to return Keiko to his native Iceland, conservationists are fighting to stop the capture of more killer whales for display in marine parks and aquariums around the world.

As recently as February 1997, a family of wild killer whales was captured by Japanese fisherman. Ten of the animals were herded into shallow water near Taiji, on the island of Honshu. Five were released but the other five were transported to marine parks in other parts of Japan. Two are known to have died and there are reports that a third has died.

The way the Japanese capture wild orcas is notoriously cruel, and marine parks elsewhere in the world often refuse to buy the badly treated animals.

For a killer whale the transition from life in the open sea to confinement in a small concrete-sided pool is traumatic. Some have good facilities, but the captive whale can no longer hunt or hear the sounds of the sea, cannot dive, and has to acclimatise to a diet of dead fish, the presence of noisy human observers and a lack of familiar company.

There is no doubt that captive killer whales are hugely popular. Millions of people flock to see them every year, unaware of the terrible truth behind the entertaining shows. But the orcas plight has become a controversial issue in recent years.

Keiko himself began life in the wild, in cold Icelandic waters. Captured in the late Seventies, probably at the age of two, he has since been on display in Iceland, Canada and Mexico.

When Free Willy was released, there was a public outcry when cinema- goers realised the star of the film was still living in a small concrete tank only 12ft deep in an amusement park outside Mexico City.

After the formation of the Free Willy Keiko Foundation and a fund-raising drive, Keiko was taken to a purpose-built pool in Newport, Oregon, on the west coast of the United States.

Since then, he has undergone intensive rehabilitation lasting almost three years and costing nearly $12m (pounds 7.4m).

Having been nursed back to health, and exercised daily to help him hold his breath for long, deep dives, he is now being taught to catch live fish. It is a long haul.

Public interest is such that more people are expected to be following Keiko's progress home than watched the World Cup.

After nearly 20 years in captivity, Keiko deserves a break. But the real story behind the headlines is the continuing capture of wild killer whales. Unless this can be banned, Keiko's story will merely repeat itself.