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Monday, 12 June, 2000, 17:10 GMT 18:10 UK
Save the whale, save the planet

Anti-whaling campaigners are outraged at suggestions the 14-year ban on culling might be lifted. But they can at least take credit for spawning today's environmental movement. By BBC News Online's Megan Lane.

Twenty-odd years ago, the plight of the whale helped raised the environmental consciousness of a generation.

"The Save the Whale campaign introduced a whole host of environmental issues to people that would not have interested them otherwise," says Andy Ottaway, director of Campaign Whale and a former Greenpeace activist.

In the mid-1970s, televised footage of activists in rubber boats confronting harpoon-weilding whalers captured the public imagination.

Saving whales
1946: International Whaling Commission set up
1975: Greenpeace's first action against a whaling ship, off the Californian coast
1982: IWC bans commercial whaling, to take effect in 1986

From 1970 to 1980, more than 113,000 whales were killed in the waters off the Antarctic.

As public and political pressure mounted to save the whale from extinction, the International Whaling Commission ordered a ban on commercial whaling in 1982, to take effect in 1986.

That ban could now be lifted, as Norway and Japan use loopholes in the IWC regulations to continue whaling by respectively refusing to recognise the agreement, and claiming to carry out scientific research.

Capture imagination

Mr Ottaway says Save the Whale is "the great-granddaddy issue" of the environmental movement, a campaign that popularised green concerns.

Greenpeace
Greenpeace activists confront Japanese whalers

In the 1970s, campaigners were widely regarded as whale-lovers with little relevance to daily life, he says.

"Twenty-five years on, the Save the Whales movement is embracing the idea that saving the whales is saving the earth.

"The threats to the whales are mirroring the threats to our own survival.

"The changing climate, ozone depletion, pollution, over-fishing, oil exploration - all of these things are having a significant and unquantifiable impact on whales."

The World Wildlife Fund's head of species programmes, Stuart Chapman, says the anti-whaling movement made people think about the excesses of past decades.

"It spawned many NGOs (non-government organisations), struck a chord with the average man in the street and became a topic of conversation."

Capture imagination

Although today's environmental concerns have broadened beyond the species-in-danger level, campaigners still need a hook to catch the public imagination.

And whales, along with dolphins, pandas, tigers and elephants, remain a sure-fire bet. What is it about these creatures?

"I wish I knew because if we could bottle it, we may be able to save the planet," Mr Ottaway says.

"Whales and dolphins remain very charismatic species that are also very vulnerable. And it inspires awe that something so big exists - we still mourn that the dinosaurs died out."

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See also:

11 Jun 00 | Sci/Tech
Whaling ban set to end
03 May 99 | World
The whaling debate
25 Jan 00 | Asia-Pacific
Japan angry over NZ whaling criticism
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