The illegal trade in dolphin meat in Peru is, in Stefan’s opinion, a huge problem but one which could be overcome quickly and successfully with the appropriate resources.
Before 1996 it was relatively common to find dolphin meat on the menu throughout Peru. Nina and Olga’s successful campaign which led to the new law being introduced was a milestone in conservation. Seven dolphin species became the only animals in Peru to have a law dedicated purely to them. Once the law took effect, the legal trade in dolphin meat ended, but an illegal one sprang up in its place. This trade continues predominantly within less well off communities; dolphin meat is not a luxury commodity for the elite but a simple food source sold at local fish markets.
When Stefan and Nina first realised illegal dolphin killing was taking place, they decided that information gathering had to be the immediate course of action. They had no idea of the scope of the problem or whether it was a small or large scale operation. Stefan’s experience and skills in undercover investigation would now prove to be vital in their research process.
Nina and Stefan realised it would be impossible to document dolphin killing at sea. The marine coastguard knew the law and would be patrolling the coast. Therefore any fishermen hunting dolphins would be doing so covertly, probably under cover of darkness, and bringing their catch ashore hidden under tons of fish.
Once on land however, it was a different story. Although a law existed, the land police did not know about it. And even if they had known, they probably would not know how to recognise dolphin meat. So, at local markets the meat could be displayed and sold easily without any fear of arrest.
The ideal place to carry out research was at the point of sale; the fish markets themselves. However, fish markets exist in some of the poorer, more dangerous parts of coastal towns and, as a white person, Stefan could not go there. Instead, local Peruvians were trained and hired to undertake the work.
Mundo Azul carried out undercover investigative research in Lima and other towns up and down the coast, generally spending two weeks at each market. It was relatively easy to build up a picture of the frequency and scale of the problem because of the decay rate of dolphin meat. Dolphin meat only stays red for 24 hours, after this time it turns black. Stefan knew that if red meat was on sale every day at the fish market, then dolphins were being killed every day to provide it. Additionally they could estimate the number of dolphins from the amount of meat on display; for example at one port, they were able to estimate a catch of two dolphins per day.
One informant, who proved his reliability by notifying the marine coastguard of a catch of dolphins due to arrive in port, told Stefan, “every day, about three dolphins are caught“. Based on the informant’s information, an estimated 1,000 dolphins were being brought ashore in one port alone over the course of a year. The formal estimate which Mundo Azul placed on dolphin killing was 3,000 per year. However, this was, “A very conservative estimate”. Stefan believes the actual figure to be much higher when the 50+ places to land catches up and down the coast are accounted for.
With the research complete and enough data collected to take action, their next step was to work with law officials. In collaboration with the Ecological Police based in Lima, they travelled with one policeman to fish markets in towns along the coast. Stefan then accompanied the officer and local police on an armed raid of the market. Mundo Azul, not the police, financed these operations. They paid travel, accommodation, petrol and food for both themselves and the policeman. In addition they paid a ‘wage’ for the officer. In Peru policemen have two or three jobs as their police pay is not sufficient. It was impossible to ask an officer to travel to another town for a few days without paying him as this would leave him with a loss of earnings. Mundo Azul therefore supplemented his income. The operations cost the organisation approximately US$500 per raid.
The raids were successful and provided the evidence required to enable local law enforcement to act. Additionally, film and photographic coverage from the raids and undercover work were used to highlight the issue in the media. During this time, Mundo Azul also carried out educational work with local police, prosecutors and other law officials to teach them about the dolphin law and its enforcement.
With a law to protect dolphins in place, successful prosecutions occurring and the gradual education of police, it would be understandable to assume that the illegal trade in dolphin meat would be quickly eradicated. However, it continues to this day. Why? Mundo Azul took the first important steps, but continuity was needed to see the process through to completion. The work of publicising the issue and dealing effectively with it along the entire Peruvian coast needed time. That continuity over an expanded timescale required finances, and adequate finances were something that Mundo Azul did not have.
Throughout the dolphin campaign in 2003-05, Stefan appealed to the international conservation world for support. But this appeal fell mainly on deaf ears. In addition, the other two marine conservation groups in Peru spoke out against Mundo Azul, claiming that the estimated number of dolphins being killed was exaggerated. These organisations’ claims were not substantiated by any data of their own, but they were none the less listened to by the world at large.
Small amounts of money were occasionally donated, but nothing on the scale required. Stefan became increasingly frustrated during this period and his frustration turned to anger. He was tired of feeling so powerless. He lost patience with the larger international NGO’s whom he had been appealing to for money.
“In Peru we have a law prohibiting dolphin killing and we have police and lawyers wanting to carry out the work of eradicating it. This is a battle which could be won. With a campaign here in Peru, international conservation organisations could have an amazing success story to tell their donors. If just one tenth of the money that is being spent on the continual campaign against Japan’s whaling was spent here, we would see the end of dolphin killing, completely. 25 years after starting to campaign against Japan, that battle is still going on, here it could be won in a year. But Peru is not ‘sexy’ enough, it is not a marketable campaign. Why fight a battle in Peru when you can fight Japan?”
Mundo Azul had no further funds to finance the work themselves and the campaign’s momentum dissipated. However, their work continues in other ways. In 2006 they initiated a first ever photo identification research project on dolphins. They are able to finance this project through the international volunteers who travel here to work with them. The research is showing that there are still huge numbers of dolphins in the waters around Peru which gives hope for the future. Furthermore, Stefan hopes that this research combined with their data from the undercover operations will one day gain the financial support needed to complete the eradication of illegal dolphin killing in Peru. And maybe if Nature Expeditions helps Peru gain a place on the world map of marine ecotourism, sending tourists home with tales of their wonderful dolphin experiences plus tales of the animals’ continued slaughter, Peru will become ‘sexy’ enough to be given that support by the world at large.
In Stefan’s own words he is a “Very opinionated person”. He has strong views on the conservation world in general, with a mixture of negative and positive experiences to draw on, including those described above. His views, both in relation to the issue of why conservation groups ignore the plight of Peru’s dolphins and in relation to other issues, will be the subject of my next, and penultimate, post on Stefan, Nina and Mundo Azul.