Kenya: Will showcasing captive whale sharks advance or hinder marine conservation efforts?

by Mar 19, 2013Habitat News, Marine & Coastal, Wildlife News2 comments

Protecting a dwindling species, increasing income for a poor community and raising awareness for environmental issues – these are the ambitious objectives of a proposed Indian Ocean Sea Park near Mombasa, Kenya. Will a marine enclosure designed to keep whale sharks inside attract tourists and benefit this endangered species?

Measuring up to 12 meters in length, whale sharks are the largest fish in the ocean. They are carnivore species, but feed mostly on plankton and small fish. Inhabiting mostly the tropical seas, they are are regarded as highly migratory.

In recent years, the number of whale sharks counted in Kenya may have decreased. According to the Kenyan Ministry of Fisheries Development, only 12 sharks have been sighted over a period of 30 days in 2010. In 2005, the sightings still amounted to 58 animals in 12 days. The decrease of whale shark sightings was attributed to ‘local fishing practices’. Other sources maintain however that the whale shark sightings have been stable in the last few years.

Indian Ocean Sea Park

Volker Bassen, founder of the East African Whale Shark Trust, believes to have found a way to generate funds for whale shark conservation. Two whale sharks will be kept in a large enclosure so that tourists can swim with the animals during snorkeling trips. This will make sure the whale sharks can be observed in the coastal region of Kenya any time of the year.

A polyethylene net with a breaking strength of 570 kg will be used in a circular area having a radius of 600 meters. The open water enclosure is designed to tie the whale sharks to the region and prevent them from migrating. The whale sharks will not be able to escape the area and will thus be easy to watch by tourist groups.

People from all over the world come to see elephants, rhinos, buffaloes, leopards and lions in Kenya. Now they will be able to add the whale shark to their lists. According to Volker Bassen, whale shark safaris would not only increase local income in the region, it would also raise awareness about the plight of the whale shark.

Part of the revenues would be used to abolish harmful fishing practices and conduct more research on the ocean’s habitat.

But will whale sharks in captivity really help save their wild conspecies? There is a heated debate going on.

Animal Welfare

Ecologists perceive the concern for the decline of the whale shark as a clever marketing strategy. They argue that holding the sharks captive will be cruel and not the right way to increase local and international awareness.

It is questionable if exposing the captive animals to hordes of tourists will truly increase consciousness about the necessity to protect them. According to Raabia Hawa, a Kenyan conservationist and honorary warden with the Kenya Wildlife Service, there is no need to see a captive whale shark in order to become aware of the animal’s beauty and rarity. Swimming with the sharks can also be realized in an open water environment. Through tracking devices, it would be possible to locate the animals and lead interested tourist groups to see them in the open sea.

The local communities state that there have been no cases of whale sharks killed in the past 5 years. Raabia Hawa explained: “The whale shark is too big a fish for these fishermen to cut up on their little wooden dhows and fishing boats. They would have to haul the entire fish back to shore”.

The benefits of improved tourism revenue generation do not seem to outweigh the concerns of holding whale sharks in an environment that is not suitable for their nature. “It should also be noted that divers follow PADI rules, and ethical divers would never seriously consider swimming with caged whale sharks”, Raabia Hawa said.

Keeping animals as large as the whale sharks in an enclosure for tourism purposes may also be harmful for Kenya’s reputation as one of Africa’s premiere wildlife destinations.


By Belinda Grasnick & Arend de Haas


  1. molly mcdowell

    I think it will hinder conservation efforts because captive animals only promote tourist to come and take pictures, if you really want to raise awareness i think you should reach out and make more conservations, and use more unique ideas to grab peoples attention to the problems that the whale sharks are facing

  2. Nejib Chabbi

    After reading this article, I wonder if Volker Bassen has really thought about his concept of whale shark safaris. A radius of 600m for a whale shark that is 12m in length is that sufficient for a highly migratory fish? Also how many tourists will be allowed in the arena to watch and learn about whale sharks? How about the stress, the noise and pollution we will put these whale sharks through? Or is this just the continuation of a pattern already seen with dolphins and orcas?

    Volker states that “people from all over the world come to see elephants, rhinos, buffaloes, leopards and lions in Kenya” is a true statement but has he forgotten that conservation movements eradicated the majority of zoos, where animals were kept in appalling conditions, and a better alternative to see wild animals was introduced by way of travelling to these exotic places with minimal impact on their habitat and the environment.

    The marine zoos have not evolved and building another one does not help conservation. They hide the true reason behind their existence. Swimming with dolphins or orcas does not give people an in depth understanding of how they interact with their environment, as they are constricted to an enclosure, but a moment of excitement as they are allowed to touch and swim with them and see them perform absurd acts. We would not be able to do the same with lions no matter if they were caged or in the wild.

    As human we can see the destructions we are making to our environment and habitat subsequently we are making progress towards conservation. The same cannot be said about the marine ecosystem as it is a hidden and obscure environment to the majority of us human. It is a fragile and very important to our survival therefore the onus is on the marine conservation organisations to educate the majority not by making ill-thought projects and marine zoos.