Protecting the monk seal…Now in Madeira!

27 de February de 2020

Parques Reunidos Foundation and the monk seal

Biodiversity & Research” is one of the Parques Reunidos Spirit‘s pillars, along with Childhood & Health”, “Social Inclusion” and “Education & Awareness”. Programs within Biodiversity & Research support projects that are fighting for ecosystem conservation and for the protection of threatened species, as well as those that promote research and contribute to developing techniques for breeding, veterinary practice, animal care and animal handling.

The Foundation’s situ conservation programs support projects that work for the protection and reintroduction of species undertaken at the original habitat locations, where biodiversity issues are most concerning.

The Monk seal conservation program is a flagship project within the Parques Reunidos Spirit. The monk seal is an extraordinary animal which, as opposed to other seal species, is the only one that lives in warm waters and is the most primitive pinniped in the world. They are very sociable animals, although males can be very territorial. They are quite large as well, reaching up to masses of 300 kgs., and they usual live up to 22 years.

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Aside from giving financial and veterinary support to Fundación CBD-Hábitat, Parques Reunidos’ zoos and aquariums contribute by educating and creating awareness about this species current status. The exhibit “The Return of the Monk Seal” was opened at Faunia by Queen Sofia in 2018, and has since also been installed at Selwo Marina, Selwo Aventura and Marineland. 

CBD-Hábitat and the monk seal

The collaboration with this program, which works for monk seal conservation in Mauritania is the oldest and most rooted one in the Parques Reunidos Foundation, which has supported Fundación CBD-Hábitat since 2010, and has contributed to significantly increasing the species’ population. the project has three lines of action:

  1. Protection the seal colony by establishing the “Coast of the Seals” reserve in Mauritania.
  2. Offering social assistance to local communities, as well as educating and raising awareness in fishing communities and schools.
  3. Permanently monitoring the colony to ensure the degree of conservation over time.

This program represents a valuable source of knowledge about the evolution in the number of seals in the colony, the place where they live, what they eat and the problems they might face.

According to the results, the program has been a great success. From one hundred individual in 1998, the monk seal colony at Cabo Blanco reached aproximately 400 individuals after the births of 77 cubs in 2019, This number already represents more than half of the 700 seals that can be found worldwide.

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The monk seal in Madeira

Starting in 2014, monitoring methodologies developed in Mauritania were passed on to other areas where monk seal populations had also been located. These methodologies -supported by the Parques Reunidos Foundation-, as well as the LIFE Lobo Marinho, have enabled, for the first time, the characterization of a specific monk seal population of aproximately 25 individuals in the Madeira archipelago (Portugal).

When Madeira was discovered 600 years ago, the monk seal was its main inhabitant. The species was hunted to almost extinction due to its valuable skin and its animal fat. Many seals were also killed when they were accidetally caught in fishing nets. When conservation efforts took off in 1988 at the Desertas Islands there were only six monk seals left.

The Desertas Islands Natural Reserva was created in 1990 to save this region’s iconic species. In Madeira they are known as “sea wolfs” and they are an element in the Madeiran coat of arms.

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The LIFE Lobo Marinho Project has entailed trailing the coast of both Madeira (153 km) and Desertas (37 km) in order to locate all the existing caves and identify which ones can be interesting for monk seals to build their colonies in.

Out of 141 caves identified along both coasts, 26 can be suitable for monk seals to rest and breed because their are sheltered from the ocean and have inner beaches. Those caves have therefore been cleaned of of the trash and pollution that has pilled up over the years.

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The project entailed the installation of cameras in 18 of the 26 caves, which take pictures hourly. Through this footage it has been possible to determine which caves the seals found most important and suitable to rest and breed.

Additionally, these pictures have allowed the indiviadual identification of each member of the population and the evaluation of their demographic and conservation status with much more precision and knowledge. This system has also allowed the identification of threats -like marine litter- to these animals’ fragile habitat.

The actions undertaken by the monk seal conservation program in the Madeira archipelago protect the caves where the seals live, and try to diminish the inconveniences caused by tourism. They also work to create awareness in local communities about this beautiful animal’s current situation and the contribution they can make to its recovery.

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