Culture

Protecting the Endangered Monk Seal

The Mediterranean monk seal is classified as “endangered”, with a total population of about 700.

Adult monk seal. Credit Huseyin Yorganci

The Mediterranean monk seal has suffered millennia of exploitation, persecution, and harassment, and today all that remain are a few widely separated, fragmented populations that occupy, collectively, only a small portion of the species’ original range.Marine Mammal Commission

Scientists from the University of Exeter have discovered a breeding site, which was previously unknown, of this rare seal.

The University of Exeter and the Society for the Protection of Turtles (SPOT) – used camera-traps to confirm breeding in caves in northern Cyprus, with at least three pups born from 2016-19 at one cave.

Camera trap image from 2017 of a monk seal pup. Credit SPOT/Monk Seal Project

Only certain caves are suitable for monk seal breeding and resting, so – although the numbers are small – the researchers say urgent action is needed to protect these caves.

“This area of coastline in being developed rapidly, especially for construction of hotels,” said Dr Robin Snape, of the Centre for Ecology and Conservation on Exeter’s Penryn Campus in Cornwall.

“A survey of the coast in 2007 found 39 possible breeding caves, and some of these have already been destroyed.

“The main breeding site we identify in this study currently has no protected status, and we are working with local authorities to try to change this.”

Monk seal resting at one of the monitored caves in Karpaz Peninsula. Credit: Damla Beton

Dr Damla Beton, of SPOT, added:

“Another major threat to monk seals in this area is bycatch (accidental catching by fisheries).

“We are working with fishers and government ministries to ensure protection areas at sea, because at present no measures are implemented to mitigate bycatch in the core areas used by these seals.”

The team has now established long-term monitoring of the breeding caves, aiming to determine the size of this seal population.

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