America stopped breeding orcas; China just started.

National Geographic reports on China’s boom in marine parks, including a new program to breed killer whales in captivity:

The Chimelong Group, one of the country’s biggest amusement park operators, revealed that it opened a breeding center for orcas on February 24 at Chimelong Ocean Kingdom—the first program of its kind in China. Located in Zhukai, a city in the southeast, the park has five males and four females ranging in age from five to 13. The orcas, also known as killer whales, were plucked from Russia’s Sea of Okhotsk, according to the China Cetacean Alliance, a coalition of international conservation organizations.

On its website, the company says it aims to “raise public awareness about killer whales and their conservation status” and “conduct research.” It adds that it plans to build a marine science museum where the orcas will be displayed. It will also work with other facilities to “promote the breeding of killer whales.”

It’s unclear whether the orcas will perform.

But unease over the well-being of the orcas at Chimelong extends beyond these broad concerns.

For one thing, the orcas could be family because they were captured from the same habitat in Russia, says Taison Chang, chairman of the Hong Kong Dolphin Conservation Society, a nonprofit devoted to the protection of cetaceans—meaning dolphins, whales, and porpoises. “If they’re related, sooner or later they’ll find some genetic diseases in the orcas because they’ll keep inbreeding,” he says.

Their diet could also pose a problem, according to Chang. Employees feed them fish, the Chimelong Group says, but researchers believe that wild orcas in the Sea of Okhotsk eat only mammals such as seals and sea lions. And the male-skewed sex ratio may lead to destructive aggression, he says, given that male orcas are naturally feisty and may fight to win a mate.

“I will be personally astonished if these animals successfully breed,” says Naomi Rose, a marine mammal scientist with the U.S.-based Animal Welfare Institute.

Growing awareness about the problems associated with captive cetaceans have led marine parks around the world to shut down or redefine themselves. In recent years a handful of countries, including India and Switzerland, have banned the keeping of orcas in captivity.

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