Monachus-Monachus - ( Courtesy of WWF )

The Mediterranean monk seal is one of the world's rarest mammals.

The Mediterranean monk seal was one of 14 mammals listed as "in need of emergency action if they are to be saved from extinction" by the International Union for the Protection of Nature (as the IUCN was then called) at its first technical conference in 1949.

One of the difficulties in addressing the conservation of the Mediterranean monk seal is its situation involving so many countries that have mutual political, economic and other social problems.

Many countries have introduced laws protecting the Mediterranean monk seal in the last 30 years. Thus, in theory the protection of the monk seal has been much improved. But, implementation of these laws usually leaves much to be desired. In reality therefore, little has changed.

The Mediterranean monk seal weighs up to 400 kg (880 lb). It is a coastal species. Most monk seals are found on two types of coasts: archipelagoes, especially those with small islands, often uninhabitable by man because of water shortage; and cliffbound mainland coastlines. Historical descriptions show that the use of beaches was normal until the 18th century. It eats fish and octopus. Reports are contradictory as to whether it has diurnal or nocturnal feeding patterns. Most Mediterranean monk seals are concentrated in small colonies of up to 20 individuals, with many in the Mediterranean numbering 5 - 8. It apparently used to live in much larger colonies.

The Mediterranean monk seal used to be an abundant species. Its former range extended from the coasts of the Black and Adriatic Seas through the entire Mediterranean to the Atlantic Ocean and the northwest coasts of Africa as far south as Senegal. Hunting for its skin prior to this century reduced the population considerably. By 1966 it had been reduced to 20 - 30 small colonies scattered throughout its original range. More recently, persecution by fishermen and disturbance of the seals’ last remaining refuges (caves with submarine entrances) by skindivers are the greatest threats.

The Mediterranean monk seal used to be an abundant species. Its former range extended from the coasts of the Black and Adriatic Seas through the entire Mediterranean to the Atlantic Ocean around Madeira, the Canary Islands, and the northwest coasts of Africa as far south as Cap Blanc. Monk seals were even observed in Senegal. By 1966 it had been reduced to 20 - 30 small colonies scattered throughout its original range.

In 1978, the distribution was described as follows: “The main center of population of the species is the Aegean Sea, especially its southern and eastern part, in the Dodecanese Islands of Greece and adjacent coasts of Turkey. This distribution extended in lesser numbers of animals north to the Cyclades, the northern Sporades and the Sea of Marmara, west towards Crete, the Peloponnesus and the Ionian Sea, and east along the western part of the southern coast of Turkey. The second, lesser concentration within the Mediterranean Sea lies along the southern coasts of the western basin, from the Mediterranean coast of Morocco along the Algerian coast to Tunisia. A few animals remain at the Balearic Islands, Sardinia, the Tyrrhenian Sea and Sicily, but the species is extinct or nearly so at Corsica. A third, minor concentration exists in the eastern Mediterranean in south-central Turkey, around the coasts of Cyprus, and on the Lebanese coast. The Atlantic population exists in discrete, widely separated populations at the Desertas Islands, rarely at the main island of Madeira, and in southern Spanish Sahara [now part of the republic of Mauritania]. There are a few recent records from the Azores.

As of 1992, the Mediterranean monk seal was thought to have become extinct in mainland France, Spain, Italy and Tunisia, in Egypt, Israel, the Canary Islands and probably the Crimea (northern Black Sea), Cyprus, Lebanon, and Syria. The monk seal also seems to have disappeared from French, Italian and Spanish Mediterranean islands and the archipelago of La Galite, Tunisia. In the western Mediterranean basin, monk seals only survive on the coastline and islands of the North African coast, some of them Spanish.

In 1997, a severe mass mortality affected the Cap Blanc Mediterranean monk seal colony off the coast of Mauritania. There have been conflicting opinions as to whether the mortality was caused by toxic algae or a newly-found virus that was found in some of the dead seals. This mass mortality could have a significant effect on the species’ population since the Cap Blanc colony was the largest population of Mediterranean monk seals.

Threats and Reasons for Decline

In the past, hunting for skins was the main reason for its decline. More recently, persecution by fishermen and disturbance of the seal’s last remaining refuges (caves with submarine entrances) by skindivers are the greatest threats. Furthermore, breeding in caves, instead of open beaches, seems to be unsuitable for the monk seal and to result in a higher mortality of pups.

The Mediterranean monk seal is very sensitive to disturbance, especially a pregnant females which will often abort when disturbed. It is also vulnerable due to its long lactation period and the pup’s dependence on its mother during this time. The pup-mother bond can be easily broken, especially during the first 3-4 weeks after birth. Recreational hunting is generally not a major problem. However, in Tunisia and Morocco the populations have been drastically reduced to only a few animals mainly by the killing of seals by scuba-divers for pleasure.

First published on 2002-07-27 02:22 PM