Vol. 4 (1): May 2001

Off Course in the Aegean?

    The November 2000 article by Dendrinos et al. [A Field Method for Age Estimation of Mediterranean Monk Seal Pups, Monachus Science Posters, TMG 3(2): November 2000] underscores some of the serious and enduring problems that affect Mediterranean monk seal conservation in Greece.

    While readers of TMG are no doubt fully aware of the critical status of Monachus monachus, there is little opportunity, even for insiders, to assess the effectiveness of current conservation activities. These are conducted in remote areas, where the last remaining individuals still manage to survive, and where usually there are no means to check what is actually happening.

    The article by Dendrinos et al. opens a window on the National Marine Park of Alonissos, Northern Sporades (NMPANS), which is said to be one of the most important retreats of the species in the Aegean.

    This “Study Area” became the exclusive territory of one organisation, the MOm (Hellenic Society for the Study and Protection of the Monk Seal) based in Athens. MOm, according to TMG, has taken up “the burden” of guarding the Park and of running the marine biological station at Gerakas on Alonissos. Its field team carries out surveys anywhere within the Park’s boundaries, even in the core zone – the island of Piperi – which is strictly protected by Presidential Decree. Nobody has access to Piperi except by official authorisation.

    Yet I have a letter in my possession issued by the Ministry of Environment which states that the Ministry has no legal authority to grant permission for entering restricted zones in the Park. But then who is responsible? Only the management body of the Marine Park, presumably. However, the management body has never been established, despite our numerous appeals to the Ministry. Therefore, based on the only evidence available, there was and there is no authority that can issue a permit for entering the core zone of Piperi and other restricted areas! Consequently, one has to assume that MOm, through its semi-official status as the NGO with the paid privilege of guarding the Park (by whom and by which authority, however, one should ask!), has awarded its own researchers exclusive access to Piperi and other restricted areas without any authorisation by any official body.

    One might say that if the main objective was to protect seals, then MOm’s intervention was necessary. However, it must be said that the presence of MOm has done little to encourage the Ministry to fulfil its obligations in setting up the management authority. One has to wonder if MOm really regards such an authority as being in its own best interests. Clearly, a supervising body – even if it was appointed a member – would result in the organisation losing the operational freedom that it currently enjoys in the Park.

    To avoid potential conflict of interest, a clear distinction should exist between guarding the NMPANS and research activities in areas of restricted access within the Park’s boundaries. Yet for more than 10 years, the research crew of MOm has been able to handle the seals as they wished... almost as if the individuals of this endangered species were their own personal possessions. Furthermore, during all this time, research has been the main factor of disturbance for the seals, at least at Piperi – more so than by fishermen, tourists or any other cause. This is in spite of repeated warnings (echoed in TMG) that disturbance of seals in their shelters must be avoided.

    According to the article on age identification, MOm’s researchers invaded “all 35 seal-shelters found within the study area” as a routine exercise. “Especially during the breeding season (July-December), the frequency of the surveys and the ability to exhaustively cover all shelters within a 24 hour period, provided the opportunity to estimate the date of birth (+/- 5 days) of each newborn pup encountered… During the study period (1990-1998), 243 different encounters with monk seal pups were recorded.”

    One has to read these quotes at least twice in order to fully comprehend the extent of disturbance they represent. Entering the narrow space of a seal shelter always poses a high risk, even if the people who do it are “experienced” (experienced because of earlier such invasions!). That this risk to monk seals and their habitat was occurring in the core zone of the Park I regard as totally irresponsible.

    Even if the seals somehow got used to the intrusions, what benefit do these research projects have in ensuring a better and safer future for the species? In the end it is only that which counts. I have tried in vain to discover any such advantage from the results in MOm’s article on age identification of pups. Firstly, the age classes described are very vague. Secondly, who is supposed to see these infants anyway apart from the cave intruders themselves?

    Considerable numbers of concerned people, including myself, are still waiting for the results of research which might actually help the monk seal’s survival. Such research (referred to in MOm’s joint publication with Archipelagos) [MOm /Archipelagos. 1995. National Strategy for the Conservation of the Monk Seal in Greece, available in the Monachus Library] includes investigations into the home range of the species, migrations, epidemiology and food preference.

    I can add a few additional research priorities to that list: communal behaviour (how adult seals interact, and to what extent they establish bonds with other individuals within their home range); movement patterns (do juvenile seals travel between locations more frequently compared with older ones?); seal-human interactions (outside of shelters, of course); mother-pup behaviour (do mothers adopt orphan pups?); habitat (to what extent do seals use open beaches for resting and what are the characteristic features of those beaches?). Unfortunately, instead of pursuing these objectives, research appears to be weighted towards theoretical concepts that have no immediate or practical conservation significance: studies of reproduction rates, for instance, mortality (if that means life-span), and age structure.

    The major threats that endanger the species have been common knowledge for two decades already. In this context, it does not matter to what precise percentage direct killing or drowning in nets are lethal threats [see When fishermen save seals, Letters to the Editor, TMG 3(2): November 2000]. We know that both are serious enough to warrant remedial action.

    It is this kind of pseudo-activity that absorbs the scarce financial resources that are so urgently needed for actual protection measures on the ground. That should not only be a focus of concern for those who have provided significant amounts of cash to monk seal conservation efforts over the years. It should be the obligation of the monk seal community to ask whether there might have been more efficient ways of spending these funds.

    MOm has gained impressive experience in mapping coastal caves, and most of their reports deal with surveys of such potential or actually used shelters. But we are still waiting for the essence of all that material, an analysis that would point to the peculiar and common characteristics of caves that are preferred or avoided by seals.

    When Yannis Florous and myself found the first breeding cave of Monachus at Piperi in 1976, it was just before a very strong storm from the north blew up, running straight against that cave. So when we returned after several days we were afraid that all three pups might have been killed by the waves. But no, the mother seals knew exactly where to give birth, and which cave was safe: the big waves broke at the cliff on top of the entrance, so almost no swell reached inside towards the pebbles on which the pups rested. These are the kinds of research priorities that might have some practical application in saving the species.

    More criticism is called for where rescue and rehabilitation is concerned. A typical example is the recent sad story about a little pup found on a beach on Ikaria. I am not saying that this pup could have been saved by different treatment. It apparently was in a bad state. But why do we have to hear about what kind of important people were involved, about the “Rescue and Rehabilitation Coordinator” of MOm, about its “Rescue and Rehabilitation Team”… the specialist-specialists and so on? Compared to this, far too little was reported about the location of the stranding, whether any seals are known to live nearby, and – considering the amount of attention and examination – the specifics of the parasite infection diagnosed.

    The Monachus Guardian is the monk seal forum on the Internet. So one should be able to expect an adequate presentation of facts! Didn’t it occur to you, the Editor, being an observer of the monk seal scene for so many years, that MOm’s self-presentation of being the specialist in “rehabilitation” is totally groundless? There was not one rehabilitation so far of any monk seal to the wild, unless you accept that a simple release falls under that criterion.

    Rehabilitation means reintroduction, with external help, to the normal ways of life of the species – a return to the population. I do not know of one single case where that objective was achieved. After having been kept in human custody, the seals were simply released to fend for themselves or became so imprinted on humans that they continued to cling to human contact. “Theodoros” is the most popular example. There is no evidence that any of the rescued and eventually released seals actually joined wild seals and contributed to the population by mating. Not one.

    I cannot even begin to guess what huge amounts of money were spent on financing the rescue operations. But I can say that the efforts were in no relation to the results achieved. It is perfectly clear that one does whatever is possible to save the life of an orphaned pup. But that operation falls under “animal welfare”, not under species preservation! IFAW [the International Fund for Animal Welfare] is the most fitting organisation for such a task, because its mandate is animal welfare. But it is misleading to make propaganda from such rescues by claiming that they add to the reproductive population of the species. That is totally wrong and I cannot hold back the suspicion that these poor little seals have been largely used for image-building for those involved. Pups always raise emotions, and seal pups even more than others; they are – as everybody knows – extremely appealing. Bearing in mind my previous references to scientific research priorities, I also wonder why there was never any attempt made to find a foster mother in the wild? Isn’t there some scientific evidence that Hawaiian monk seal mothers adopt orphan pups? I have also heard similar reports from the western Sahara.

    Unfortunately, the forces that control monk seal conservation in Greece today will not enter any reasonable or constructive dialogue. People who once contributed to the preservation of the islands have, in recent years, been pushed to the sidelines. Even myself, the very person who first brought the seals at Piperi to the world’s attention, who made the initial, detailed proposals for the Marine Park, and who has enjoyed very close relations with the people of the Northern Sporades since 1957, has since been prevented from visiting Piperi, and from contributing to the conservation process.

    In September 2000 I heard from the fishermen of Alonissos that conditions are “worse than ever” around Piperi. Watching day by day – and I can imagine they do check from a distance what is going on in their traditional, but now off-limits fishing grounds – they notice trawlers and other foreign boats, they talk about speargun-fishing by tourists, and other illegal activities.

    Sadly, the Northern Sporades remain the only example, at least in Greece, where a balance was achieved and a peaceful relationship established between fishermen and seals in practical terms. Now even that relationship is being put in jeopardy after a very promising start. It is essential that the fishermen – in fact all the human population in seal areas – be at the forefront of controlling the protected area. If we cannot re-establish the ancient awareness of unity with nature, a sustainable co-existence, then all our future attempts will be fruitless.

    I fear that the encouraging initiative of local people on Karpathos (supposedly MOm-coordinated!) to set up their own locally managed conservation area for monk seals and other wildlife, cultural monuments etc., may suffer that same fate [Mediterranean News, TMG 3(1): May 2000]. Despite its promise, there is the real danger that this genuine and straightforward approach will be turned by outside directives into a lethal system of “Nature Protection Areas”, “Areas of Low Impact Development”, “Protected Landscapes” and “Coastal Protected Areas “ – in other words, strangled by petty regulations.

    Dr. Thomas Schultze-Westrum, Aeolou 9, GR 105 55 Athens.
    email: tschuwe@hotmail.com

    Editor’s note: At the writer’s request, a selected bibliography has been lodged in the Monachus Library.


On Course in the Aegean

    The contribution of Dr. Thomas Schultze-Westrum in 1976, to identify the important monk seal colony at Piperi and to call for its protection, was indeed significant in the initial steps of establishing the National Marine Park of Alonissos-Northern Sporades (NMPANS). However, many things have changed since then and numerous people have worked hard during the last 25 years to achieve the effective protection of the monk seal population and the promotion of sustainable development in the area.

    In reading Dr. Schultze-Westrum’s letter, it is obvious that he is not familiar with the current situation in the Park. In fact, the numerous contradictions contained in his communication, that in some cases present a wholly distorted view of reality, make it clear that he is at best ill-informed and that his ideas for the management of the Park and for the conservation of the species are both muddled and questionable. In this he can blame nobody but himself since, during the last twelve years while MOm has been actively involved in the NMPANS, he has not once bothered to communicate directly with us, either to request information or to express his thoughts or concerns. On the contrary, on several occasions it has come to our attention that he addressed “open letters” to key institutions and individuals (e.g. national and European policy officials, potential contributors of funds) in which he criticised with tenacity each and every one of our monk seal conservation efforts in Greece.

    We indeed wonder if this is the “reasonable or constructive dialogue” that Dr. Schultze-Westrum is seeking? Despite the fact that we view this new “open letter” as a continuation of the same old ritual, we would like to express our views on several key issues in order to provide some objective information to TMG readers.

    In considering the effectiveness of conservation activities within the NMPANS – an issue of quite legitimate concern for all those interested in the fate of the species – it is a wonder that Dr. Schultze-Westrum can disregard the fact that, during the last reproductive period of the species, 12 monk seal pups were recorded within the Park [Baby boom in the Sporades, TMG 3(2): November 2000]. By comparing this to the average of 5 pups recorded in the 1990-93 period, and to 8.75 for the years 1997-2000, it becomes abundantly clear that monk seal conservation here is well “on course.” Indeed, the fact that 9 of the 12 pups recorded in autumn 2000 were born on the island of Piperi provides compelling evidence of the effective enforcement of the strictly protected core zone of the Park.

    Dr. Schultze-Westrum, looking through the “window opened by Dendrinos et al.” – an article presented at the World Marine Mammal Science Conference that also appeared in the last issue of TMG – appears to be suffering from the same kind of factual confusion in criticising the research methodology applied by MOm for over a decade now. In fact, the same methodology has been employed since the mid-1980s by numerous monk seal researchers in different parts of the eastern Mediterranean, including the Ionian islands and Turkey.

    The potential effects of any research activity on a critically endangered seal species are, and should be, an issue of concern. This was one of the main reasons that MOm undertook the initiative, almost nine years ago, to form its own international scientific advisory committee, composed of leading scientists active in different fields of pinniped biology and ecology. The direct result of this continuous process of evaluating our work in terms of its scientific and conservation merit is the research methodology that we have been applying for several years, based on a combination of direct cave visits and the use of pre-programmed automatic cameras.

    MOm’s cautious approach to research and its decision not to use highly invasive techniques (capture of animals, radio or satellite transmitters or TDRs) – methods widely used in studying other seal species – was decided upon after considering all the implications, fully cognisant of the fact that we were excluding potentially powerful tools in the study of the species’ ecology (e.g. movements of animals).

    The increasing numbers of seals using these so-called “disturbed” shelters, together with increasing births, especially in the core zone of the Park, suggests that the animals are not being adversely affected by researchers. Despite the fact, however, that there is currently no evidence of negative impact upon the seals, MOm will continue to actively seek constructive criticism and advice on this issue.

    In terms of the writer’s criticism of MOm’s Rescue and Rehabilitation Programme, we would simply like to draw attention to its key operating principles. The Programme has, since its inception, been based on internationally established operating protocols that were adapted to meet the specific needs of Monachus monachus during 10 years of practical experience. All procedures – rescue-treatment-release-necropsies – follow these protocols, that are constantly revised according to new scientific findings originating both from field research work and from the rehabilitation programme itself.

    MOm’s Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre cooperates closely with the Veterinary School of Thessalonika and, at an international level, with the Seal Rehabilitation & Research Centre of Pieterburen, the Netherlands. When expert opinion on specialised issues is required, MOm relies on its scientific ad hoc advisors. These procedures ensure the quality and effectiveness of the work conducted.

    The programme is indeed costly, as Dr. Schultze-Westrum has seen fit to criticise, and yet it has been almost exclusively financed through MOm’s own resources. Furthermore, its objectives and accomplishments, contrary to the writer’s claims, go far beyond the rescue and subsequent release of individual seals. Among other things, the programme has allowed collection of valuable data from all over coastal Greece on current threats to the species, enabling us to formulate appropriate conservation measures. Information gathered via the rescue network, for example, allowed us to complete a quantitative analysis of causes of monk seal mortality in Greece [see Androukaki et al. 1999. Causes of mortality in the Mediterranean monk seal (Monachus monachus) in Greece. Available in the Monachus Library], to gather information on the genetic variability of the Greek population in relation to the Western Atlantic one, and to determine the pollutants present in seal tissue, etc. Last, but not least, the programme provides a naturally effective way of raising public awareness, and of promoting further involvement of key stakeholders in the conservation of the species.

    Being a complex issue, Dr. Schultze-Westrum’s comments regarding the management of the NMPANS merit special consideration.

    First, the non-establishment of a management body responsible to plan, coordinate and promote all conservation activities within the Park remains a major drawback. Unfortunately, all those involved – central and local government, environmental organisations, scientists, local stakeholders, and others – have so far failed to accomplish this key task and MOm, despite its continuous efforts, is the first to acknowledge its due share of responsibility.

    However, in the final analysis, the establishment of such a body remains in the hands of the Greek state. Unfortunately, although voicing a legitimate frustration, Dr. Schultze-Westrum does not offer any constructive criticism, relying instead on his customary habit of negating everything in sight.

    At least some of his more spurious observations require clarification:

    a) Based on the Presidential Decree governing the NMPANS, the official authority responsible for the management of the Park is the Hellenic Ministry of Environment. This government authority is solely responsible for all activities conducted within the Park (including the issue of access permits).

    b) We are not aware of any letter issued by the Ministry of Environment that denies its assigned responsibility in issuing access permits to the protected zones of the Park. Indeed, in September 1996 MOm’s guarding team and the Alonissos Port Police authority received a copy of a permit (Protocol Num. 20155/2995, 27/9/1996) issued by the Ministry to Dr. Schultze-Westrum, allowing him and his film crew access for filming within the Park’s zones excluding only the strictly protected ones. It should be noted that in these zones only research and management activities are allowed upon permission issued by the Ministry, based on detailed description of the foreseen activities. Unfortunately, it seems that adherence to the NMPANS regulations was not viewed with much importance, since the Park’s guarding team, at 13:00 on 02/10/1996 encountered Dr. Schultze-Westrum and his companions travelling towards the core zone, the island of Piperi, and were obliged to request them not to enter the exclusion zone. It is hard to understand how the originator of the idea to protect the Sporades monk seal population can be resentful of the legitimate actions of guards patrolling the area 20 years later.

    Based on rumours that “conditions are worse than ever” around Piperi, the writer concludes that if the current situation does not change, “all future attempts will be fruitless.” In this, Dr. Schultze-Westrum follows the same, hopelessly contradictory rationale pursued throughout his letter. While criticising guarding efforts for their alleged inefficiency in controlling illegal activities, such as speargun fishing and trawling, he complains that implementation of the Park’s regulations has brought despair to the local coastal fishermen.

    According to Dr. Schultze-Westrum’s logic, research results must lead us to the unique conclusion that increased disturbance (by researchers, tourists, speargun fishermen, trawlers etc.) is directly responsible for increasing the monk seal birth rate in the NMPANS.

    Coming back to the real world, it is useful to remember what the situation was really like on Piperi about fifteen years ago. Reviewing reports of early research missions in the present core zone of the Park, we read that at the beginning of the reproductive season of 1985 “…numerous speedboats travelling day and night with amateur fishermen, 2-3 purse-seine boats fishing close to the southern coast of the island, dozens of Falco eleonorae shot by fishermen… divers, tourists and photographers exploring every corner of the island… after 12 days of extensive research in the shelters on Piperi, the presence of no more than 2 adult seals was recorded…” (University of Athens 1985). The photograph of the six newborn pups, sleeping in a single cave on Piperi in October 2000, published in the last issue of The Monachus Guardian [Baby boom in the Sporades, TMG 3(2): November 2000], leaves little to add in terms of comparison.

    In conclusion – and going beyond this kind of “reasonable and constructive dialogue” – we believe that all conservation work should be judged according to results achieved and not on rumour and innuendo. This is how we evaluate our own work and how we would like it to be evaluated by others in the future.

    Dr. Spyros Kotomatas, Scientific Coordinator, MOm, Athens


    University of Athens. 1985. Research Program in the Northern Sporades. Report of research team of the Department of Biology, University of Athens, December 1985: 1-77.

    Editor’s note: TMG plans to publish its special assignment report from the Northern Sporades Marine Park in our November issue.

Sightings in Italy

    I have just visited your interesting web site. A nice initiative! The Maltese Islands, where I live, lost their monk seals a long time ago although there are several coastal and marine caves whose names indicate that there used to be a resident population.

    I just wanted to say something on recent sightings of the Mediterranean monk seal in Italy. I have heard of sightings off the island of Pantelleria (SW of Sicily) and a more recent one where a fisherman encountered a seal off the coast of the Aeolian island of Salina (Sicily). The monk seal had not been sighted at Salina for more than 60 years! In Sardinia, there still seem to be a few individuals and there are several initiatives aimed at creating marine conservation areas to protect the seal’s habitat. I was wondering whether your organisation collects data on such sightings.

    Annalise Falzon, Activities Secretary, Nature Trust (Malta), PO Box 9, Valletta CMR 01, Malta.

    Editor’s note: The Monachus Guardian reports sightings of monk seals from any area where a population is thought to be extinct, on the threshold of extinction, or where individuals may be transiting between groups through former territory in the species’ range. In the last issue of TMG, we carried an extensive report from Sardinia following a confirmed sighting there [Sighting spurs government action, TMG 3(2): November 2000]. In Italy, both the governmental Istituto Centrale per la Ricerca Applicata al Mare (ICRAM) and the NGO Gruppo Foca Monaca collect, track and evaluate monk seal sightings on a national level.

Mysteries persist in Libya

    I recently had postal contact with travellers visiting Libya. Before they set off on their journey, I asked them to enquire about the monk seal. Along the shores of Cyrenaica, up to Tobruk and Bir Hakeim, the response they received was “Seals? No. Oh! yes, but 30 years ago…”

    This was, of course, not a scientific survey, but even so, the results were not very encouraging.

    Dr. François Moutou, Maisons-Alfort, France.

    Editor’s note: Libya remains a great puzzle on the monk seal distribution map. There have never been any comprehensive or systematic surveys that we are aware of. Historically, virtually nothing was known of the monk seal in Libya until an English resident, Mr. W.J.T. Norris, set about questioning fishers and other coastal dwellers during 1966-68. In his subsequent paper (Norris, W.J.T. 1972. Monk Seals in Libya. Oryx 16: 328-330) he reported the existence of an established breeding colony in Western Cyrenaica, near the fishing settlement of Tolmeitha (Ad Dirisiyah). Here, a colony was said to live in submarine offshore caves, long known to local fishers. Norris wrote that the colony “is rarely disturbed, being regarded with a respect that borders upon superstition…” He continued: “The indifference which stems from such a peaceful coexistence makes it difficult to form an assessment of the size of the colony, but the impression given is of a fairly constant population of about 20 to 30 individuals.” More recent status reports, relying on educated guesses rather than empirical research or the reports of local correspondents [see The Numbers Game, TMG 3(1): May 2000], have put the Libyan monk seal survivors at 5-10 individuals. The Monachus Guardian would like to hear from anyone who might have more information.

How can I help monk seals?

    I was wondering if there is any foundation where I could send any money I raise to help keep the Mediterranean and Hawaiian monk seals alive. I don’t know if I can send a lot of money as I am only 13 but any money is better than no money.

    Hannah Stanley, USA

    Editor’s reply: Where conservation of monk seals and their habitats is concerned, any donation, whatever the amount, is of great importance. This is especially so in the Mediterranean, where most active protection work is carried out by grassroots conservation organizations that don’t have significant financial resources.

    International organizations that support monk seal conservation initiatives (including the publication of The Monachus Guardian, and guarding activities in the Northern Sporades Marine Park in Greece) include the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) and the IFAW Charitable Trust (ICT).

    If you wish to contribute money to either of these organisations, please be sure to specify the monk seal account code “Monk Seals 031-020015015”. Send your donations to:

      IFAW - International Fund for Animal Welfare
      411 Main Street Yarmouth Port
      MA 02638

      Email: info@ifaw.org
      Web: www.ifaw.org
      Atten: Ronnie O’Connor, US Supporter Services
      (Quote: Monk Seals 031-020015015)


      IFAW Charitable Trust
      89 Albert Embankment
      London SE1 7UD

      Email: info@ifawct.org
      Web: www.ifawct.org
      Attn: Clare Jeffrey
      (Quote: Monk Seals 031-020015015)

    The following organizations also attempt to raise funds for their monk seal conservation and research through donations, membership, or the sale of merchandise:

      The Hellenic Society for the Study & Protection of the Monk Seal (MOm), Solomou 18, GR-106 82 Athens, Greece. Email: info@mom.gr. Offers membership and merchandise, and also organises an annual volunteer programme. For further donations information, check out the following web page: www.monachus-guardian.org/break00/momapp01.htm.

      Underwater Research Society – Mediterranean Seal Research Group (SAD-AFAG), P.K 420, Yenisehir, TR-06444 Ankara, Turkey. Credit card payments accepted for donations and membership. Email: sadafag@ttnet.net.tr.

      Hawaii Wildlife Fund, Maui, Hawaii. Offers adoptions, guided tours etc. Check out donations information on their web site: www.wildhawaii.org/yourhelp.html.

    Also, refer to our Network page for additional organisational contact details: www.monachus-guardian.org/network.htm.

    Finally, thanks for writing – and for caring about the monk seals. They can definitely use all the friends they can get…

The editor reserves the right to edit letters for the sake of clarity and space


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