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The Mediterranean Monk Seal is one of the worlds most endangered mammals. What chance is there of saving it from extinction? Monachus monachus, to call it by its Latin name, is one of three species of Monk Seal. It once swarmed through the Mediterranean and adjoining Atlantic while the other two speices were common in the Pacific and Caribbean. These represent the only genus of seal found in tropical seas.
The Caribbean Monk Seal Monachus tropicalis was spotted by Columbus when he arrived in the New World. Then it was abundant but it was also shore loving and exploitable. Soon it was being slaughtered in droves. In 1707 a West Indian traveller wrote The Bahaman Islands are filled with seals. Sometimes fishers will catch a hundred in a night. The last was sighted in 1952 and now the species is almost certainly extinct.
The population of Hawaiian Monk Seals Monachus schauinslandi may never have been so numerous. Now the last remaining 3000 or so are carefully protected in a reserve at French Frigate Shoals off Hawaii and its numbers have stabilised. They are the best hope for survival of the genus.
The Mediterranean Monk Seal gave its name to an ancient city, Phocaea, in Asia Minor, and, as late as the 15th century, was plentiful enough to fuel a commercial fishery. A few Monk Seals still inhabit the Mediterranean, but vanishingly few, and they are rarely glimpsed. Too many governments have divided up the waters of the Mediterranean to make organised research feasible. And, in any case, monk seals are rattled by human doings -- motorboats, airplanes, fishing, tourists.
All the monk seal wants is to continue living in the ancient seas for which it was designed. But those waters are gone now. Pollutants, plastics and fishing lines ride the waves, and hominids stomp along the beaches or race across the reefs. Occasionally a pregnant monk seal does haul up onto a beach, Ironically, although tourists may lie happily for hours, broiling in the sun, when they see a monk seal doing the same thing they assume it is stranded or in trouble, and chase it back into the ocean. That simple act -- hazing it back to sea -- may kill it and its young.
Now the last few have been pushed to isolated spots in Turkey, Greece, Algeria, Sardinia and Madeira. There they nurse their young in caves inaccessible by land. In these relatively poor countries tourism takes priority over conservation. The Mediterranean Monk seal teeters on the edge of extinction.
- The above summary, and the images on this page are from an article appearing in National Geographic, January 1992.
Lucy Keith, a researcher with the Hawaiian monk seal Project kindly sent me a correction (30 Jan 1996), she says
... I am very happy to see information about monk seals on the web, but did notice one incorrect fact about HI Monk seals. There are only about 1300- 1400 left, not 3000 as stated. Also, there are actually 6 major breeding locations (one of these is French Frigate) ... There hasn't been a drastic decline in the last few years but a slow and steady annual decline of about 6% per year...
For those who need more technical details I have collected together some other information about the Mediterranean monk seal compiled by some of the organisations which have projects to protect it.
In the early summer of 1997 the Mediterranean monk seals of the Mauritania colony were struck by a mystery disease. It is estimated that at least two-thirds of the colony of about 310 seals have been killed and there may even be as few as 70 left. Reluctance by local authorities to grant necessary permits made the treatment of the remaining seals difficult. Then an emergency rescue plan was hampered by opposition from the Mauritanian Centre for Fisheries Research. The Mauritania colony was by far the largest of the Mediterranean species, with about half the total number, so the tragedy has had a highly significant impact on its chance for survival. Post mortem analysis indicates that a toxic algal bloom was the most likely cause. Such blooms, also known as red tides, can be natural but may also be stimulated by polution. Further information is available in a World Wide Fund report
Here is a list of other links to help our friends and
For sources of environmental information look up the Amazing Environmental Organization WebDirectory
I have received bundles of information from some of the nature reserves which have been set up to protect the seal:
My thanks for the following other contributions:
date: 27/12/95 from: email@example.com (Kouroutos Vassilis) subject: Ecotourism in the National Marine Park (NMPANS), Greece organization: CompuLink Network newsgroups: rec.travel.europe The National Marine Park of Alonnisos N.Sporades (NMPANS), is the first to be founded in Greece. It is situated in the Eastern Central Aegean sea, near the well known island of Skiathos. One of the main aims of the creation of the Park is the protection of one of the most important habitats of the monk seal (Monachus monachus), which is high on the list of species threatened with extinction, both in Europe and world-wide. With the research-ecotourist 25m. boat "OCEANIS", we organise ecotourist programmes in the NMPANS and other areas of Greece (Ionian islands, Cyclades etc) as part of our efforts for the protection of the Mediterranean Monk Seal and management of its important habitats. If you like more information send email to firstname.lastname@example.org and we will send our answer by email. Mark with (x) one of the following items for further information about: - The "OCEANIS" programmes (itenary and prices) - How you can earn TWO FREE TICKETS. - The National Marine Park of Alonnisos N.Sporades - Opportunities for students.
Facing Extinction.......................................... Date: 3 Jan 1996 10:33:08 -0500 From: email@example.com (Patdwfsyte) Organization: America Online, Inc. (1-800-827-6364) Newsgroups: alt.gossip.royalty Twenty rare creatures, from the world's biggest butterfly to a flightless parrot, face extinction in 1996, environmentalists have warned. The World Conservation Monitoring Center in the English university town of Cambridge blamed pollution, poaching and the booming human population for the imminent disappearances."Man has been bumping things off since he first lit fires," researcher Martin Jenkins told The Times newspaper. "More species are at risk than they were 100 years ago," he said. Among those listed as being in danger of vanishing were Chinese alligators, the Californian condor, New Zealand's flightless kakapo parrot and the world's largest butterfly, the Queen Alexandra's birdwing from Papua New Guinea. The outlook was equally bleak for the Mediterranean monk seal, that has fallen prey to saturation tourism, and the Yangtze river dolphin, a constant victim of fishing boat accidents.
Name:Gian Andrea Morresi Email:firstname.lastname@example.org Date:Wednesday - 7/Feb/96 - 19:16:12
I just wanted to say: THANK YOU SO MUCH for the Mediterranean Monk Seal homepage!!! I have been concerned with the fate of these extremely endangered seals since my teenage years in Florence, Italy. I am glad someone is bringing attention to the plight of this species (and thus to the entire threatened Mediterranean biodiversity.) Sadly, some environmental -- and many governmental -- organizations considered the Mediterranean Monk Seal a species that cannot be saved. How wrong they are!!
I would like to mention that the reason for the Mediterranean Monk Seals' taking refuge and giving birth in caves by the sea is in fact a way to protect themselves from (mostly) human harassment (I read this in a reputable Italian nature magazine.) This actually may cause the new-born seal not to grow as strongly. I will try to keep you updated if I hear anything new about the conservation of Mediterranean Monk Seals the next time I go to Europe.
Thank you so much.
Gian Andrea Morresi
P.S. I have written Wildlife Conservation Magazine recently,
asking the editors to inform the
readers through articles and updated of this much endangered species.
P.P.S. The recent renewed tensions between Greece and Turkey will most probably affect the protection of this species negatively, as they have in the past (such as the delay or cancellation of the establishment of refuges.
Seals unite Greece and Turkey over Kardakrocks From: Vassilis Alexandris
Date: 1996/02/05 MessageID: Pine.3.89.9602051600.A11419email@example.com sender: The Hellenic Discussion List comments: ******************************************************** content-type: TEXT/PLAIN; charset=US-ASCII apparently-to: mime-version: 1.0 reply-to: Vassilis Alexandris newsgroups: bit.listserv.hellas x-ph: V4.firstname.lastname@example.org By Deniz S=AAt=BD=AA
No need to ask the chiefs of staff of Turkey and Greece, the two quarrelsome NATO allies which have been looking for an opportunity to release pent-up energy. The governments of the two countries, too, would naturally disagree.
So, the more pertinent question should be who benefited from the recent crisis during which opposing flotillas circling the uninhabitable rocky outcrops came close to war. Again, there is no clear answer. The Athens government definitely did not, after having to swallow its pledge to keep the Greek flag flying there forever. Prime Minister Tansu Ciller of Turkey could not make much political capital out of it either, despite her best efforts, failing to convert it into a tidal wave of popularity to ensure her continuation in office as the nationseeks a government following the inconclusive December poll.
The media of the two countries, engaged in a nationalistic war of their own, did not achieve a circulation blitz as a result of their efforts.
The elite marine commandos or "SAT" teams who confronted each other briefly on opposite rocks in the closing stages of the crisis basked in media publicity, with team members obliging TV crew by clambering up steps in mock assaults, their heads covered with tightly-bound wet bandanas which, although they look good on screen, do not meld well with frigid conditions.
The rubber Zodiac dinghies starred in media coverage, but prohibitive prices precluded any boom in sales. The toy stores, however, were reported to be true winners from the display of machismo, with plastic sets of commandos swept off the shelves even before the crisis was over.
So who won in the end -- besides the curious goats who returned to their peaceful sunning after the company of some strange black-clad men with blackened faces? There is no clear answer so far. But Turkish ecologists, although their expeditionary landing was thwarted, want to make sure that the disputed rocks go to nobody but their true owners -- the sea mammals threatened with extinction.
Ecologists from Izmir, Ankara and Bartin gathered in Bodrum on Friday to make a "green" claim for the rocks. But they had political objectives as well, presenting the "monk seals" as a unifying cause for the people of both countries.
The initial intention was to follow the example of certain Greek and Turkish citizens and also hoist a flag on Kardak.
The intended flag, however, did not have national colors on it, but the likeness of a monk seal to illustrate the green viewpoint about who owns the uninhabited rocks.
"Kardak belongs neither to Greece nor to Turkey. It belongs to the monk seals," was the message the ecologists wanted to proclaim.
Saynur Gelendost, one of the organizers of the action and a member of the local seal-protection committee in Bodrum, said the Kardak rocks were home to monk seals who were in danger of extinction.
When both sides, Greece and Turkey, prohibited the ecologist's approach to the disputed rocks, the greens had to review their invasion plans, deciding to land instead on Kiremit Island off Yalikavak, a village a few kilometers from Bodrum's city center.
"Our aim was not to create another international crisis; we just wanted to pave the way to a peaceful approach to the dispute. That's why we decided to land on Kiremit instead of Kardak., said Savas Emek, from the Izmir-based environmentalist group S.O.S. Akdeniz.
"There are hundreds of islets and rocks similar to Kardak in the Aegean Sea. As they are all uninhabited, they are natural wildlife reserves ideal for monk seals that chose the region for breeding. We want these places to remain as they are," said Emek.
He said the seals, whose survival depends on the existence of such uninhabited places, were unfortunately the real losers of the military confrontation in the Aegean.
Emek stressed the urgent need for protective measures that Greece and Turkey have to take together to provide the Aegean wildlife with a secure and healthy environment.
But understanding ears were not in abundant supply: despite the peaceful nature of "Operation Kiremit," Gelendost was questioned by regional officials afterwards.
On 29 March 1996 the documentary Porgram Thalassa on French TV FR3 broadcast a 30 minute film about the Mediterranean Monk seal. We saw rare and beautiful scenes of the seals in their natural habitat underwater and in remote caves.
The main areas covered were Mauritania, Madeira and Greece.
In Mauritania on the West coast of Africa there are about 120 seals in one of its few haunts which are still off limits to tourists. The coastal area here is a military zone making it difficult to access. Some biologists have ventured into this area but remember four French researchers who were tragically killed by a land mine here in 1988.
The fishermen in this area are a potential threat to the seal and must be persuaded to respect it. Here more than anywhere this may be a difficult task. The fishermen are poor and their catch is the main source of nourishment for the coastal villages. It is hard for them to understand why money is spent to protect this seal.
From the Parque Natural da Medeira we saw Henrique Costa Neves working relentlessly to protect the small colony of some 20 seals which remain in that area. They live principally in a large cave on the Island. Henrique had kindly sent me an informative letter about the reserve so it was a special pleasure to see him on this program.
The Greek and Turkish Islands in the Aegean Sea are home to the largest remaining population of Monk Seals in the Mediterranean. Ecologists in these areas seem dedicated far beyond duty to the protection of the seal. Now they need real commitment from their governments to secure the future of the reserves which have been set up. The European Union has awarded millions of Euro in grants for these projects. In Greece we saw how a marine station had been built at great cost as a place to save endangered seals but it is standing empty as biologists had not been given permission to use it.
There is a huge conflict of interest between the seals and tourism and fishermen in these areas. The fishermen have depleted the stocks of fish destroying their own livelihood. Now they have little sympathy for the seal when it cuts their nets in search of the few fish which are still left. The seal reserves are off limits to fishing but this is resented and hard to enforce.
The progam also spoke of controversial projects to try to keep seals in captivity. Many biologists feel that it will be almost impossible to breed these sensitive seals in captivity, the only real hope is to protect them in their natural habitat they say. Nevertheless, one team of biologists from Spain is putting into operation a project backed by a million Euro grant from the EU. They wish to take a small number of seals from Mauritania over to the Canarie islands where they will try to rebuild a population.
The conclusion: without coherent and effective political action the Mediterranean monk seal will have disappeared in 20 years time
If you have a web page concerned with wildlife conservation - or anything - please add a link to this page.
This page was last updated 26 December 1998.