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Monk Seal Fact Files

Mediterranean Monk Seal

(Monachus monachus)


Rescue and rehabilitation

With habitat degradation increasing the likelihood of newborn pups being swept out of caves by storm surges and becoming separated from their mothers, rescue and rehabilitation has assumed particular importance among conservation priorities. To date, orphaned monk seal pups have been rehabilitated in specialised facilities in Greece, Madeira, Mauritania, and the Netherlands (prior to the establishment of a dedicated unit in the Northern Sporades Marine Park).

In Madeira, only one orphaned pup has so far been rehabilitated in a unit established in the Desertas Islands Nature Reserve (Neves & Pires 2001).

In Greece, the rehabilitation programme established by the NGO MOm in association with the Seal Rehabilitation and Research Centre of Pieterburen, the Netherlands, works in tandem with a rescue alert network operating throughout coastal Greece.

The Rescue and Information Network (RINT) founded by MOm has been operating for 14 years, and relies on a coastal network of port police officials, fishermen and others to report monk seal strandings, including dead, sick, wounded and orphaned animals (Adamantopoulou 2000, Johnson (ed.) 2004d).

In the early 1990s advising scientists postulated that, with a sufficiently developed network, as many as 20 orphaned monk seals might be rescued annually in the Aegean (Bellerive 1991, Johnson 2001a).

Such optimistic forecasts, however, have failed to materialise, despite the formation of a network that generates significant sighting and alert information. Sporadic rescues over the years have made it difficult to raise the necessary funds to build and maintain a dedicated monk seal rehabilitation facility in the eastern Mediterranean. An ambitious 1992 plan was subsequently shelved as a result of cost concerns and lack of candidate animals (Johnson 2001a).

In addition, monk seal pups brought into temporary captivity for the purposes of rehabilitation have not always responded well to treatment, for reasons difficult to quantify because of variation of individual circumstance and limited comparative data. Age, pre-existing condition, injuries sustained in stranding, available veterinary care and time interval between stranding and rescue may all play a part in a pup’s response to treatment and its chances of survival.

A significant number of pups in rehabilitation suffer from gastro-intestinal complications, possibly because their digestive tracts have not developed sufficiently to assimilate the fish porridge and whole fish on which they are traditionally fed in captivity (E. Androukaki pers. comm. 2004). A milk formula used during some Mediterranean monk seal rehabilitations as a mother’s milk substitute was discontinued in Greece following complications (t’Hart & Vedder 1990, SRRC/HSSPMS 1991, Androukaki 2005a).

Since 1987, 16 orphaned monk seals originating from Greece have undergone rehabilitation (3 at the SRRC in Pieterburen). Of these, 7 have been released into the protected waters of the Northern Sporades Marine Park and 9 have perished (Androukaki 2005b, Komnenou 2005, SRRC 2005).

There has been no systematic use of tracking devices which, aside from gathering biological data, can also offer some indication of the fate of the released seal.

Two pups rehabilitated at the SRRC were equipped with radio telemetry devices when released in the Sporades in 1988. Although termed a success, the animals being tracked over several months by boat and plane, the experiment was not repeated in subsequent releases (Reijnders & Ries 1989, t’Hart & Vedder 1990). The pups did not remain within the Sporades Marine Park, emphasising once again the importance of conservation education activities beyond MPA borders.

Satellite tracking devices have been used on seal pups rehabilitated in Mauritania on four occasions since 1997 (Cedenilla et al. 2002, Cedenilla & de Larrinoa 2004a, 2004b), and in Greece in 2004 (Johnson ed. 2004e).

More advanced than radio telemetry, satellite tracking can yield significant data on post-release movements and diving (Cedenilla & Fernandez de Larrinoa 2004a, 2004b, Johnson ed. 2004f). Satellite data may also be more effective in providing assurance that the released animal has survived its return to the wild, since the technology is not bound by the same range limitations as radio telemetry. Satellite tracking devices are capable of functioning for several months before battery die-off or being shed (as intended) with the animal’s first moult (Johnson ed. 2004f).

Two rehabilitated pups have been reported dead following their release. A pup that had undergone a prolonged 11-month rehabilitation at Cabo Blanco in 1998 is thought to have become entangled in one of the numerous gill nets, set by industrial fishing boats operating illegally in the area, in the days following its release. More recently, in September 2004, the corpse of a rehabilitated pup released in 2002 was found partially buried on a beach on the Cabo Blanco peninsula (outside the protection zone and routine surveillance), the injuries sustained suggesting that she had been killed opportunistically for meat and fat. Spanish technicians in the area concluded that the seal had become imprinted on humans during her rehabilitation, and that her tameness following release contributed to her death; they called for rehabilitation protocols to be adjusted accordingly (Cedenilla & Fernandez de Larrinoa 2004c).

Despite various practical challenges, rescue and rehabilitation of orphaned seal pups has demonstrated an extraordinary ability to focus local, national and international public attention on the monk seal cause, and generate significant public sympathy and goodwill for the species (Johnson 1993 & 2001a, Johnson ed. 2004e).

A rescue network is currently being established in Turkey with Greek technical assistance and EU funding (Johnson ed. 2004d).

© 2006 All Rights Reserved.
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