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Iranians buy Soviet 'killer' dolphins

The Times
By Richard Beeston
March 10, 2000

A SQUAD of former Soviet Navy dolphins, trained to kill enemy divers and blow up ships, have become the world's first "animal mercenaries", after they were sold to Iran by the Crimean authorities, who could not afford to keep them.

In what must rank as one of the most bizarre sell-offs of the post-Cold War Soviet arsenal, 27 naval amphibians, including dolphins, Beluga whales, walruses and sea lions, were transported by air to an undisclosed Iranian base on the Gulf.

Boris Zhurid, a former submariner in charge of training the dolphins, said that he was forced to sell his animals after he ran out of cash to feed and maintain them.

"Had I been a sadist, I could have stayed in Sevastopol," Mr Zhurid told Moscow's Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper, before setting off for Iran. "But I could not bear to see my animals go hungry. We have run out of medicine, which costs thousands of dollars, and have no more fish and food suplements."

Although dolphins have a popular image as clever and friendly, during the Cold War both the US and the Soviet Union developed secret training schools where the animals became skilled in detecting mines and carrying explosive charges which would explode on contact with enemy ships.

Soviet trainers even boasted that their animals were able to distinguish between the sound of a friendly or enemy submarine engine. The animals' highly developed sonar was also used to locate missing torpedoes and missiles. The Soviet Navy even experimented with dropping dolphins out of aircraft in specially designed parachute harnesses.

The animals were also trained to attack enemy divers with a harpoon attached to their backs. Once speared, the victim would be dragged to the surface.

Mr Zhurid said that the Iranians had built a dolphinarium for research, and presumably further combat training. He did not say how much Iran paid for the dolphin deal.

The mammals could be of great value to the Iranians who are in constant struggle for control of the Gulf and its entrance at the narrow Straits of Hormuz, through which much of the world's oil is exported.

The newly imported dolphins from the former Soviet Navy's Black Sea Fleet headquarters in Sevastopol will not be the first naval dolphins to go into action in the region. The US Navy deployed five dolphins in the Gulf in 1987 to protect its warships from Iranian mines.

Despite the prospect of his beloved dolphins being used by the radical Iranian regime, Mr Zhurid said their welfare was his paramount concern.

"I am prepared to go to Allah, or even to the Devil, as long as my animals will be OK [in Iran]," he said.

Tackling the trade in Black Sea dolphins

Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society

Attached is a recently-published, investigative report tracking the fate of dolphins from the Black Sea and exported to dolphinariums. In the past few years, Black Sea dolphins have been appearing all over the world. They have been transported with very little care, to less than adequate holding facilities. There is a significant and uncontrolled trade going on that needs to be addressed.

In all, WDCS tracked 43 bottlenose dolphins exported from the Black Sea countries of Georgia, Russia and the Ukraine to foreign dolphinariums between 1990 and 1997. It is possible that other exports took place. There is documentary evidence that 20 of these are now dead, and 9 have been returned to Russia. The report follows each export and the fate of the individual animals.

What has become evident is that some of these dolphins were Russian ex-military animals and some were 'wild-caught'. WDCS's particular concerns are that wild-caught dolphins are being passed off as ex-military animals that need to be relocated. One of the reasons given for the exports was that the Russian Navy could no longer afford to keep its military dolphin - which gave a convenient cover for a commercial trade.

The Black Sea bottlenose dolphin is facing enough threats to its wild habitat, without having to face the continued possibility of capture for a dolphinarium. The Black Sea is regarded as one of the most polluted marine environments in the world; as a consequence, much of its ecosystem is suffering. Fish stocks are depleted and many animals carry high pollution burdens. No one knows exact population figures for the Black Sea bottlenose dolphins. This is a species whose conservation and habitat requirements must be addressed - capturing individuals for captivity serves no conservation purpose.

When it was published the report attracted a considerable amount of attention and WDCS will continue to work to put a stop to this particular trade.

Report "The Dolphin Traders - An Investigation into the World-wide Trade and Export of Black Sea bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) from the Ukraine and Russia, 1990 - 1997". (PDF file)