Whale of a tale

190

Friendly Fire

Khalid Saleem

WHALES are once again in the news. The New York Times, in an article ‘Mass whale die-off on Atlantic coast puzzles scientists’, published the other day, raises the age old question of, what it called, the “unusual mortality event’ relating to whales along the Eastern Seaboard of the United states. Some years ago, there had been several reports, among others, of the ‘inexplicable practice of pods of whales to commit ritual mass suicide’ around the Australian island state of Tasmania and near Auckland, New Zealand.
While on the subject, mention must be made of the several calls for a ban on ‘whaling’ that, incidentally, goes on unabated in several regions of the world. Why such calls, one may well ask? There are not without cogent reasons, though. For one thing, whales cannot be covered by laws related to fishing for the simple reason that whales do not happen to be fish, and vice versa. Fish are cold blooded animals; whales, on the other hand, are mammals.
Whales, one might add, have hardly ever been out of the news. Not undeservedly, though. After all, being the largest living creatures on this earth, they do deserve attention a bit out of the ordinary. Regrettably though, what makes them the object of news is not their size or their lifestyle but their mass death wish that comes into the open every now and then. One is not referring to man’s well-known cruelty to other species, but to the aforementioned phenomenon peculiar to whales. Whales have been the victims of whalers for as long as one can remember. Despite International Conventions to regulate and curtail the practice of whaling, it is a matter of some regret that this elegant creature continues to be the victim of mass culling in several parts of the world – in some illegal, in others according to the law.
What drives large groups of these gigantic and elegant creatures to resort to such acts of mass suicide remains a mystery. Is it part of nature’s plan to keep the population of whales within reasonable limits or are they driven to this extreme act by some actions of man or some other species? Be that as it may, such regrettable events are the cause of some anguish for sensitive people and would deserve to be looked into in some depth. In this age of globalization, when the small fry are being subjected to a squeeze of gigantic proportions, it is somewhat refreshing to read about these larger than life creatures. For the man in the street with little grasp of the news dealing among other things with international finance, whales – alive or dead – must come as a welcome diversion of sorts.
But how did whales enter into the international pages of newspapers in the first place? Fishing rights – and fishing wrongs, if you wish – have for quite some time been a matter of considerable concern to international economists. While on the subject of international economic affairs, one can hardly ignore the fact that fishing in troubled waters has been the favorite sport of wealthy nations for as long as one can remember. Others, though poor but having a craving nevertheless to be part of the Big League, have also been dabbling in the same game.
Humankind, all pretensions notwithstanding, has never enjoyed a particularly enviable reputation as either a rational or, indeed, a benign species. The creatures of the sea, much like the creatures on land, have been hunted down without discrimination by man through the ages, sometimes for food, but often as sport. Why this special feeling, then, for the whales, one might well ask? Is it because they happen to be fellow mammals living in a hostile environment? Or maybe, the fact has registered that, despite their gigantic size, whales do enjoy the general reputation of being rather gentle and benign creatures.
Be that as it may, whale-wise, humankind can be neatly divided into two camps – one being of those in favour of whaling; the other comprising those opposed to it. There is, as always, a third camp – that of disinterested bystanders and as such favoring a compromise between the two extremes. The first camp comprises those who have looked upon whales for ages as a handy source of nutritious food. The second camp is composed of the so-called animal lovers, whose principal concern is to show some kindness to a fellow mammal species. The whole thing, therefore, has the makings of an international tangle.
And what does the world community generally do in similar circumstances? It sets up an International Commission, of course. What else? This is how the Body known by the weighty title of the International Whaling Commission came into existence. In 1986, a moratorium of sorts on “commercial whale hunts” was agreed upon. If the reader has garnered the impression that this Commission has put a stop to the killing of whales, perish the thought. The moratorium notwithstanding, the International Whaling Commission grants quotas to various communities around the world for their whale hunting expeditions. The Commission merely attempts to limit the number of whales they are allowed to slaughter in a given season. Like all international bodies, it passionately believes in mere papering over the cracks – not finding lasting solutions! Meanwhile, multilateral diplomatists have got another handy excuse to have whaling conferences in exotic locations all over the globe.
Coming back to where one started, there remains something of a mystery about these mass suicides of the whale species. Why should they be intent on doing on their own what a good part of the world community is hoping to prevent? Could it possibly be part of nature’s plan to keep the whale population at a reasonable enough level? Or, alternatively, can it be one of those conspiracies to keep the much-vaunted multilateral diplomatist community in business? What a horrendous thought, that!
— The writer is a former ambassador and former assistant secretary general of OIC.
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