The World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA), the leading umbrella body for facilities that keep and display captive animals, is facing legal action over its alleged links to the notorious dolphin hunts in Taiji, Japan.

Several conservation groups are reportedly taking the international body before a court in Geneva, Switzerland after accusing it of green-lighting the capture of wild dolphins for one of its members – while ostensibly opposing the annual hunt at Taiji Cove. The Guardian reports

Waza is accused of sanctioning a private deal involving the fishermen who herd and slaughter the dolphins and the Japanese Association of Zoos and Aquariums (Jaza), which is an associate Waza member.

Waza’s code of ethics labels the dolphin hunts “inherently cruel”, but it allegedly agreed a “dolphin management protocol” with Jaza in 2009 that involved a “gentler” method of herding small numbers of dolphins towards shore where they would be captured for aquariums.

In a statement on its website, WAZA denies supporting the Taiji dolphin fishery in any way, adding that it is "deeply concerned" about the practice and is "taking all action possible to help stop it". It also denies that any of its member institutions possess dolphins captured during the Taiji drive hunts. 

The recent court action against WAZA was filed by conservation group Australia for Dolphins. It calls for the body to abide by its own ethics code or to expel the Japanese Association of Zoos and Aquariums. "Australia for Dolphins is taking WAZA to court in Switzerland. We’re arguing that it’s unlawful for WAZA to claim it supports animal welfare – then turn a blind eye to cruelty and abuse by some of its member organisations," says the group on its Facebook page.

Taiji Dolphin Slaughter 14 03 2014
Image: Reuters

The small Japanese village of Taiji has been in the global spotlight since its annual dolphin hunts were documented in the award-winning 2009 film 'The Cove'. During the hunts, fishermen use boats to herd the dolphins into coves and inlets, where some of the most desirable animals are selected for sale into captivity, while others are killed for their meat. Over 1,200 dolphins were killed during the 2010-2011 hunting season, according to the US-based Whale and Dolphin Conservation, one of the organisations behind the court action.

The killing methods used by Taiji fishermen, where large metal rods are used to penetrate the spinal cord, have been condemned by activists and conservationists as inhumane, and studies have claimed that the tactics "would not be tolerated or permitted in any regulated slaughterhouse process in the developed world." Claims that the hunts are part of a long-running Japanese cultural tradition have also come under attack. "Evidence shows that whale and dolphin hunting has occurred within the area for centuries; however the practice of dolphin “drive hunting” developed in the 1970s ... The practice ... is not even as old as some of the men who practice it," argues the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society.

With aquarium industries in China and Japan growing rapidly, the capture of live dolphins during the Taiji drives is becoming an increasingly lucrative activity, with some trained dolphins reportedly worth more than $100,000.

Australia for Dolphins has also launched a global advocacy campaign to convince WAZA to take action against aquariums that purchase dolphins and whales from cruel hunts. "WAZA says it exists to promote animal welfare and conservation. But some of WAZA's members and affiliates – who pay WAZA membership fees – are doing the opposite [by] buying dolphins captured in the bloody Taiji dolphin hunts," it says in an online petition. 

Exactly what happens next is up to the courts and largely yet to be dermined. We'll be posting any news here, so watch this space for updates.