Russian authorities have ordered the release of 100 captive orca and beluga whales after a petition, shared by Leonardo DiCaprio, gained over 900,000 signatures to free the endangered animals. Last year, pictures of gorgeous whales held in cramped captivity garnered outrage but little had been done to secure their release until now. The Kremlin said five baby walrus, 11 orcas and 90 baby belugas were kept in cruel conditions by owners who planned to sell them to Chinese aquariums. While Russia’s federal security service, the FSB, stepped in and brought charges against four companies that broke fishing laws, the majestic mammals were still placed in a “whale prison,” as the authorities worked out the proper protocol for their release.
On February 26, Leonardo DiCaprio brought this issue to the forefront as he tweeted a petition to his 19 million followers, asking them to sign for the immediate release of the whales. “Please sign this petition and join me in speaking out against the inhumane capture of orcas and belugas in Russia,” he asked, sharing a Change.org link, that continues to gain signatures. “This is the largest number of sea creatures to ever be held in small temporary enclosures. Some of them have been there since July,” the petition reads. “These Orca’s need to be released into their natural habitat. The belugas need to be transferred to responsible people that will feed them, rehabilitate them and release them into their natural habitat when they are ready.”
Russia’s president Vladmir Putin had told his environmental and agricultural ministers to “determine the fate” of the marine mammals by Friday, March 1, before Leo’s tweet, but it appears the actor’s involvement was the final push the authorities needed to actually get the whales released. It’s quite obvious that Leonardo DiCaprio is a respected figure in Russia, as Putin paused his own speech in the middle of a 2010 summit in St. Petersburg to praise Leo’s commitment to the environment. “A person with less stable nerves could have decided against coming, could have read it as a sign—that it was not worth going,” he said, before referring to the actor as a muzhik, which means “a real man.”