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- Environmental Science; animal rights/liberation; environmental ethics; environmental NGOs; Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphin; wildlife conservation
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The release of captive dolphins (Tursiops aduncus) from South Korean marine parks, which occurred in 2013, 2015, and 2017, is described and evaluated for its usefulness for conservation of coastal ecosystems. The campaign to free the dolphins created a flagship species, uniting the efforts of national government agencies, local government, and NGOs. However, the Korean management agencies framed the release as a species-specific conservation intervention, while the NGOs brought forward welfare-based demands for the curtailment of cetacean captivity. We argue that the release of the Korean dolphins changed the policy climate, to facilitate two major policy changes: revision of anti-whaling regulations to prohibit capture of cetaceans for exhibit, and improvement of regulations for rescue, rehabilitation, and release of stranded marine animals. Tradeoffs between welfare and conservation concerns are described in terms of risk for the management agency, welfare for the animals, and feasibility of a continued commitment to maintain the viability of the dolphin stock in the wild. The release of captive animals to their native range relies on a single-species conservation focus which poses little risk for management agencies but does not guarantee their continued commitment.