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🗞 Whale of a time

People have done a lot of harm to the biggest creatures on our planet; but now our interest in seeing them up close in their natural habitat – the sea – is helping save whales from hunting.

There is good news and bad news for whales this summer. But some people who want to protect these huge mammals think even the bad news could turn out to be good.

The good news is that Iceland, the little island nation in the North Atlantic Ocean between Norway and Canada, has announced it is banning the hunting of whales. The bad news is that Japan, the richest big country in Asia, launched a new type of whale hunt.

But as Patrick Ramage, a whale conservation expert from the animal charity IFAW, explained to the journalist Felix Austen from Germany’s Perspective Daily, the way Icelanders were persuaded to stop hunting whales suggests that the Japanese, too, may soon do the same.

Iceland realised that its people could make much more money from helping tourists watch whales swim off its coast than it ever could from selling whale meat to eat.

Patrick Ramage describes how he and his small group of team-mates listened closely to Icelanders to understand why they refused to join nearly all other countries in banning the killing of whales and then worked with people in Iceland to persuade them – rather than just criticising them from outside.

He thinks that kind of constructive approach can work with the Japanese, too, and also with Norwegians, the only other country that still hunts whales.

The rather small number of people in Iceland who made money from whaling had, Ramage says, persuaded a lot of other Icelanders that whaling was an important part of their history and special culture. They said that the campaign to stop them killing whales was being run by foreigners who wanted to push little Iceland about and bully it.

That kind of argument can be very effective and the anti-whaling campaigners found it hard to get their message over.

“When you come in from outside and just criticise people … you create a situation in which whaling supporters and other proud Icelanders come together and defend whaling in an even more determined way.”

Patrick Ramage

The trick was to show that he was not anti-Iceland, just pro-whale. And that lots of Icelanders also wanted to save the whales.

Whale-watching from boats, hunting with cameras and binoculars instead of harpoons, is a growing business for people for seaside towns in many parts of the world. Icelanders, including fishing communities that once hunted whales, saw that they had more to gain from whale tourism than from whale hunting.

And so they decided to stop whaling altogether.

Japan is a lot bigger than Iceland. But like Icelanders, the Japanese have felt under attack from angry foreigners telling them they should stop killing whales.

That’s why Patrick Ramage thinks that what worked in Iceland – listening to local people and persuading them that they have more to gain from whale-watching than whale hunting could also work in Japan. Going out and killing whales off your own coast is not a good way to attract tourists.

Amid all the news coverage of their government’s decision to let fishermen start killing whales off the Japanese coast in July, several commentators noticed that the government in Tokyo is gearing up next year to host the Olympic Games, the huge sporting event that billions of people watch on TV every four years.

Hosting the Olympics is usually a time that countries like to show the rest of the world that they are friendly and modern. The Japanese don’t criticise it for very much – is for letting hunters kill hundreds of whales every year.

“Because of the Olympics … the (Japanese) government is very anxious to discourage anything that could show the country in a negative light,” says Patrick Ramage.

He thinks Japan will soon follow Iceland in banning whaling. And that Norway, the only other country which allows people to kill whales, will also find it very difficult to continue.

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