Call for wild captures to end, as shocking footage reveals reality of cruel trade in Russian beluga whales

Call for wild captures to end, as shocking footage reveals reality of cruel trad
Wednesday, 22 February, 2017
Moscow, Russia

The cruel trade in Russian beluga whales (the white whale), captured in the wild for sale to aquaria and travelling shows, has been condemned by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) as shocking new footage reveals the true depth of the animals’ suffering for human entertainment.

IFAW is calling on the Russian government to ban the wild capture and trade in belugas and other cetaceans ahead of the release of hard-hitting documentary Born to be Free, which follows the fate of 18 belugas caught in the Sea of Okhotsk in the Russian Far East for sale to aquaria.

The film, showcasing the first investigation of its kind in Russia, shines a light on the secret and often murky international trade in marine mammals. Examining all aspects of the supply chain, it gives a revealing and distressing insight into the reality of a life in captivity for the animal victims.

Masha Vorontsova, IFAW Russia Director, said: “Beluga whales are highly intelligent animals with a very complex and social family structure. IFAW believes that belugas and all whale species are not suited to a life in captivity and belong in the wild.

“Sadly little thought is given to welfare in this trade driven by profit. A captured beluga, once it has been trained to eat dead fish instead of hunting live prey in the wild, can fetch up to US $1million. When I heard that three daring young Russian women wanted to document this issue I was very pleased that IFAW could help them tell the story and bring it to public attention. Anyone who doubts the suffering of these animals need only watch this film.

“IFAW urges the Russian government to ban all future wild capture of belugas and other cetaceans. We also ask members of the public not to support shows involving belugas or whales, which fuel this lucrative and unacceptably cruel trade.”

The belugas featured in the film were initially caught to supply the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta, US, but during lengthy legal proceedings which ultimately saw a US ban on their import, the belugas were held in small and cramped concrete reservoirs at a research station on the Black Sea coast. The outdoor containers were tantalisingly close to the whales’ natural habitat, positioned within sight of the sea.

During production of the film telling their story, at least one of the whales featured died and the surviving whales were finally sold and transported to Chinese aquariums.

IFAW has worked for more than 20 years to protect Russia’s beluga whales from commercial exploitation for the whale meat trade, aquaria and harmful tourism activities. Since 1995, IFAW and researchers from the Shirshov Institute of Oceanology have operated a non-invasive research station monitoring belugas off the coast of the Solovetsky Islands in the White Sea and assessing threats to the species. In 1999, IFAW successfully campaigned for a ban on the commercial hunting of Russian belugas to supply whale meat to Japan.

The film, produced in Russia and the UK with support from IFAW, will premiere at the opening of the ECOCUP International Green Film Festival in Moscow on February 24.

Later, on International Earth Day (March 21), the film will go on general release in Russia and will be available for viewing in the UK via Channel 4, in Germany and France through Arte and globally via Netflix.




Notes to Editors:

The trailer for Born to be Free can be viewed here

Born to be Free will open the ECOCUP International Green Film Festival at the October Cinema Center in Moscow. The festival runs from February 24 to March 2.


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About IFAW

Founded in 1969, IFAW rescues and protects animals around the world. With projects in more than 40 countries, IFAW rescues individual animals, works to prevent cruelty to animals and advocates for the protection of wildlife and habitats. For more information, visit Follow us on Facebook and Twitter. Photos are available at


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Brian Sharp, Emergency Relief Officer, Stranding Coordinator
Manager, Marine Mammal Rescue and Research
Dr. Maria (Masha) N. Vorontsova, Senior Advisor to the IFAW Marine Conservation
Senior Advisor to the IFAW Marine Conservation Program
Matt Collis, Director, International Policy
Director, International Policy
Patrick Ramage, Program Director, Whales
Program Director, Marine Conservation