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Monk Seal Fact Files

Mediterranean Monk Seal

(Monachus monachus)

Mediterranean monk seals in captivity

For a species already described as rare in the 18th century (Hermann 1779, Johnson 2004), the Mediterranean monk seal made reasonably frequent appearances in travelling shows, fairs, and even some zoos and aquaria. The live capture of specimens has, in fact, been linked to the seal’s disappearance from certain key areas, including Croatia and the Black Sea (Kiraç & Savas 1996, Kiraç 2001, Johnson 2004). Certain zoos in Europe continued to order monk seal specimens from traders in full knowledge of the species’ rarity and precarious hold on survival (Johnson 2004).

Some of the first historical records speak of Mediterranean “sea calves” entertaining the circus crowds in ancient Rome (Johnson & Lavigne 1999a).

Though renowned for their intelligence and docility, historical evidence suggests that the animals rarely adapted well to captivity (Johnson 2004).

Partly due to poor, unsanitary conditions and ignorance of dietary needs, individuals in travelling shows in the 18th century often survived only long enough to profit their owners, thereby driving on the relentless cycle of supply and demand.

Monk seals continued to be captured for various zoos and aquariums across Europe during the 20th century (Mursaloglu 1964). To date, there has been no serious attempt to gather, collate and analyse such records, despite the valuable information previously collected by Rigas and Ronald (1986). Of the 34 individuals cited in the publication – quite possibly the tip of the iceberg given the opacity of official record keeping where such animal transactions are concerned – the vast majority survived for no more than a few weeks or months in captivity (Johnson & Lavigne 1994). Only one specimen, a female monk seal in the Vasco da Gama Aquarium lived to reach the reasonably respectable age of 24.

Except for the occasional and temporary confinement of orphaned monk seal pups for rehabilitation, there are currently no Mediterranean monk seals held in captivity.

The species has never been known to breed successfully in captivity. Partly for these reasons, a French government-backed plan to capture monk seals at Cabo Blanco in Mauritania/Western Sahara for an ostensible captive breeding project at Antibes Marineland, a commercial oceanarium, was abandoned twice in 1990 and 1994 respectively after meeting determined opposition by the scientific and conservation community (Johnson & Lavigne 1994).

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