Dolphin hunters in the Solomon Islands are being offered money by the government to end the annual kills and turn their skills into an eco-tourism attraction.
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13 Jul 2015 - 4:29 PM  UPDATED 16 Jul 2015 - 11:41 AM

The tiny Pacific nation is responding to international pressure over the slaughter of about 1,000 dolphins a year by traditional hunters.

Moves to end the practice are controversial and causing tensions in communities opposed to giving up their culture, source of protein and income.

“The killing of dolphins must stop, it’s not really what the world today needs".

“The killing of dolphins must stop, it’s not really what the world today needs,” said tourism minister Bartholomew Parapolo.

Developing a tourism industry trading on culture is an economic priority for what is one of the world’s poorest countries, but Bartholomew Parapolo said some kastom must be sacrificed.

Tourism minister Bartholomew Parapol says the world has moved on from dolphin kills. (Stefan Armbruster, SBS)

“Today the world has changed and the lives have changed, so it is no longer really important what has happened before - the dolphin teeth for kastom money. Now things have changed, the [important] thing now is to protect the dolphins and re-direct to tourism activities.”

Some hunters have signed up but other communities say there are plenty of dolphin and vow to never compromise their culture for money or standards of foreigners.

“We feel it’s an insult, how dare you come an ask me to change my culture”.

“We feel it’s an insult, how dare you come an ask me to change my culture,” said Ethel Sigimanu from Fanalei village in Malaita.

“We are not doing commercial hunting for dolphins, it’s part of our tradition. Killing a few dolphins to meet our basic needs and to ensure our culture is maintained in the long run, these are things we can’t compromise on.”

Delicate and intricate chains of coral and dolphin teeth are highly-prized Solomon Islands wedding wealth, handed down through the generations.

“My mother passed it on to me because I’m the eldest daughter in the family,” said Ethel Sigimanu who now lives in the capital Honiara and continues the tradition.

“It’s part of our culture, what gives us our identity, as a culture and a society, and we’re very proud of it. I can’t see my daughter getting married without the dolphin teeth.” 

“It’s part of our culture, what gives us our identity, as a culture and a society, and we’re very proud of it. I can’t see my daughter getting married without the dolphin teeth.” 

Jo Sigimanu dressed in traditional Fanalei wedding costume made of coral and dolphin teeth. (Stefan Armbruster, SBS)

Her daughter Jo studies in Australia and hopes one day to marry in full traditional kastom.

“I feel very proud, it is my identity, it represents my people, it’s part of me,” said Jo Sigimanu.

“When they (Australians) have a wedding, they have a white wedding gown and jewellery and all that. This is what I wear, this is what I need, and this is what I go into a wedding with.”

The Fanalei people have recently returned to dolphin kills, but Bita’ama, another of about eight Malaitan coastal villager groups that traditionally hunt, have recently agreed to stop the practice.

“In our culture, we eat dolphin. It’s very nice meat out from the sea, we call it ocean beef.”

“In our culture, we eat dolphin. It’s very nice meat out from the sea, we call it ocean beef,” said Emmanuel Tigi, a dolphin caller and community leader from Bita’ama.

“We can exchange for food from highlands. We live by the sea and we bring meat to the highlands and the highlands bring us food. 

“In 12 months, when we catch dolphins for three months, that’s our budget and it brings highland and coastal people peace and harmony and unity and it always brings people together.” 

“In 12 months, when we catch dolphins for three months, that’s our budget and it brings highland and coastal people peace and harmony and unity and it always brings people together.” 

Dolphins are not just an important source of protein for the traditional villagers. They provide valuable teeth and with them prestige, and giving up the kill is a controversial decision. 

“We are the powerful tribe of dolphin from Malaita and the most powerful tribe of catching dolphin is the Bita’ama tribe,” said Emmanuel Tigi.

Tigi Emmanuel with agreement to end dolphin kills. (Stefan Armbruster, SBS)

“It’s a big decision. When I go to my father and brothers, they say, ‘It’s a sacrifice Tigi, it’s our inheritance. When we stop dolphin [killing] it’s a problem, we will have no revenue earning each year’.”

Dolphin hunts are sporadic but when they occur the turquoise waters of the Pacific turn a deathly colour.

Coastal dolphins are rounded up using a fleet of canoes, driven into a bay and then killed on the beach.

“In our custom and culture we hunt dolphin in the ocean for just three months. That’s sustainable management and the sea in the whole world is much wider,” said Tigi Emmanuel.

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature says spinner and spotted dolphins are not vulnerable or endangered.

A recent report for the Royal Society on the Solomons hunt found there is almost no data on the killing of about 1,000 dolphins a year but recommended research should be conducted to determine the impact on local populations.

What is known is the future existence of these species is not threatened by traditional hunting. 

Environmental groups have for years condemned the Solomons' dolphin kills but have focused their campaigns on Japan and Faroe islands.

The Solomons banned live dolphin exports for aquariums two years ago, after international pressure.

Hopes are the dolphin hunt will be able to continue, but not end as a beach-front abattoir and instead see tourists swim with the animals.

“In other parts of the world, they train dolphins for tourists to see,” said Bartholomew Parapolo.

“This one is different. They go out and catch the wild dolphins, come into the harbour, and you can enjoy the dolphin - the wild dolphin not the trained and this is amazing.”

The government is offering communities cash incentives to stop killing, but that has failed before.

Ethel Sigimanu’s Fanalei community saw family set against family when they agreed to a similar deal with United States-based environmental group Earth Island Institute about four years ago. 

“It’s a resource and it has a special place in the community, and people who don’t have teeth are made fun of. ‘How come you are from Fanalei and you don’t have teeth, that’s unthinkable’,” said Ethel Sigimanu.

Disputes over the distribution of the compensation money to stop the dolphin kills saw the deal fall apart.

The tourism minister has visited the Bita’ama community and promised Emmanuel Tigi financial help to set up an industry there.

“If the government of the day does not prove his words, we are going to go hunting again.”

“I question the people, ‘How long we wait?’, and they say, ‘If the government gives the money according to its promise and build our accommodations, eco-tourism or swim with the wild, then we will agree’,” said Emmanuel Tigi.

“If the government of the day does not prove his words, we are going to go hunting again.”

(Stefan Armbruster, SBS)