Animal welfare groups from around the world presented a report on whaling yesterday that aims to take the argument back to basics: the cruelty of the kill.
The report, likely to be seen as one of the most significant contributions to the whaling debate for many years, is a detailed scientific study of how much violence is needed to slaughter the world's largest animals in the open ocean.
Its premise is that much of the argument in the annual conferences of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) now tends to be about whale population statistics, and this has obscured the main issue - that the act of killing the great whales, usually by explosive harpoons, isunacceptably cruel.
The report,Troubled Waters, comprehensively reviews the animal welfare implications of modern whaling activities. It has been produced by 142 animal welfare organisations from 57 countries, including several from Britain, who have come together in a new coalition,Whalewatch. Its avowed purpose is to bring the issue of cruelty back to the fore at the next IWC meeting in Italy in July, and maintain the international moratorium on commercial whaling.
The moratorium has been in force since 1986, but is increasingly being challenged by the three main pro-whaling nations - Japan, Norway and Iceland. Since it was introduced, more than 20,000 whales have been killed by the whaling countries - by Japan and recently Iceland under the guise of "scientific" whaling, and by Norway as a simple commercial hunt. In this coming year they are likely to kill more than 1,400 animals between them, mostly minke whales.
But the new report does not concern itself with numbers. It sets out to demonstrate, in extensive technical detail, that the great whales are so big and powerful that the amount of force needed to dispatch even one of them is unacceptably inhumane.
Britain's best-known naturalist, Sir David Attenborough, stresses the point in his foreword to the report. "The following pages contain hard scientific dispassionate evidence that there is no humane way to kill a whale at sea," says the broadcaster.
"Dr Harry Lillie, who worked as a ship's physician on a whaling trip in the Antarctic half a century ago, wrote this: 'If we can imagine a horse having two or three explosive spears stuck in its stomach and being made to pull a butcher's truck through the streets of London while it pours blood into the gutter, we shall have an idea of the method of killing. The gunners themselves admit that if whales could scream, the industry would stop for nobody would be able to stand it.' The use of harpoons with explosive grenade heads is still the main technique used by whalers today."
Sir David suggests that any reader of the report should "decide for yourself whether the hunting of whales in this way should still be tolerated by a civilised society."
Peter Davies, director general of the World Society for the Protection of Animals, one of the leading groups in the coalition, said: "The cruelty behind whaling has become obscured in recent years by abstract arguments over population statistics. The fact is that, whether it is one whale or a thousand, whaling is simply wrong on cruelty grounds alone."
The technology used for killing whales has altered little since the 19th century, when the grenade-tipped harpoon was invented. The penthrite grenade harpoon, the main killing method today, is fired from a cannon mounted on the bow of a ship. It is intended to penetrate a foot into the whale before detonating. The aim is to kill the animal through neurotrauma induced by the blast-generated pressure waves of the explosion.
However, if the first harpoon fails to kill the whale, then a second penthrite harpoon or a shot from a rifle is used as a secondary killing method. But given the constantly moving environment in which whales live, there are inherent difficulties in achieving a quick clean kill, the report says, and despite its destructive power, the whaler's harpoon often fails to kill its victim instantaneously, and some whales take more than an hour to die.
The difficulties in hitting a whale with any degree of accuracy can be seen in the margin for human error. For example, despite similar killing methods being used, Norway reported that one in five whales failed to die instantaneously during its 2002 hunt, while Japan reported that the majority of whales - almost 60 per cent - failed to die instantaneously during its 2002-03 hunt.
Tests to determine the moment of death of a whale are inadequate, the report says, and the question remains whether whales may in fact still be alive long after having been judged to be dead. The full extent of their suffering is yet to be scientifically evaluated.
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