Whale of a tale

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Khalid Saleem

WHALES are once again in the news. According to an AFP report, datelined Sydney, hundreds of whales were stranded in southern Australia. The report adds further that “at least twenty-five whales have died and scientists are trying to rescue 250 more that are stranded in a remote bay on the Australian island of Tasmania”. Not very long ago the fact that Japan’s whaling fleet had reportedly set sail for the whaling areas made headline news. Apparently over-riding the protests of anti-whaling societies, several countries – among them Japan, Iceland and Norway – have continued to stick to the practice of whaling. At this point, it may be relevant to clarify that 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 classified as mammals.
Whales have hardly ever been out of the news of late, 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. Here the reference is not just to Man’s well-known cruelty to whales – as incidentally to other species – but to a phenomenon peculiar to whales. What has often made news headlines is the inexplicable practice of pods of whales to commit ritual mass suicide.
Some years ago, over a hundred pilot whales had died after beaching themselves on the coast of Australia’s island state of Tasmania. Then, there was another incident in which twelve giant sperm whales washed up on the beaches near Auckland, New Zealand. The whole thing makes little sense. 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 the anguish about the demise of these larger-than-life creatures.
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, as an aside, one can hardly ignore the fact that fishing in troubled waters has been the favourite sport of wealthy nations for as long as one can remember. Others, though poor but having a desire nevertheless to be part of the Big League, have also similar cravings!
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 favouring 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 gentle reader has garnered the impression that this Commission was intended to put a stop to the killing of whales, perish the thought. The moratorium notwithstanding, the International Whaling Commission, in effect, 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 around the globe.
Coming back to where one started, there remains something of a mystery about these mass suicides of the gentle 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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