Tourism could help saving Mediterranean monk seals, but if unmanaged it will only accelerate their demise

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The pup shows no fear of visitors. Photo © Flavio Piccolomini.

With only a few hundreds individuals remaining, Mediterranean monk seals are the most endangered marine mammals in Europe and among the most threatened of the whole planet. Once widely diffused throughout the Mediterranean and nearby Eastern Atlantic Ocean, as a result of unrelenting persecution by fishermen and the thorough encroachment of their habitat they are now on the verge of extinction. Perhaps by virtue of the large amount of habitat still afforded by the many uninhabited islets and rocks scattered across the Aegean Sea, Greece and Turkey are today the only Mediterranean nations left where monk seals still regularly breed, secluded inside the protection of appropriate coastal caves.

Unfortunately, the monk seal breeding season happens to coincide in part with the peak of the tourist season, a coincidence likely to result in making the seals even more endangered than what they already are, as I have had the opportunity of documenting yesterday in an undisclosed location of the Northern Dodecanese, in Greece.

Mother seal looking at her pup, hauled up on the small beach inside the cave. Photo © Flavio Piccolomini

Mother seal looking at her pup, hauled up on the small beach inside the cave. Photo © Flavio Piccolomini.

There, sheltered on a small sandy beach at the far end of a large cave carved in the cliff of a small, uninhabited islet, lives today a female monk seal with her small pup. As it happens, the location is also very popular with tourists from nearby islands, who converge there aboard day-trip boats organised by local operators, as well as with their own vessels; and the word has spread that seals can be visited in the cave.

Well-managed, tourism could be a bonus for monk seal conservation because of the high value that visitors attribute to such charismatic animals. This value can be harnessed to the benefit of the local communities, which would then strive to protect the seals or, at a minimum, stop destroying them. However, in the current total absence of management, anyone can imagine the amount of disturbance that this seal pair is subjected to, in a most critical phase of their existence and in a moment in which their quiet and peace should be guaranteed at all costs.

Just outside the cave, the traffic of tourist boats is wild.

Just outside the cave, the traffic of tourist boats is wild.

While protecting the monk seal breeding caves in the area is still a domain of dreams (although in the Regional Strategy for the Conservation of Monk Seal in the Mediterranean, which was formally adopted by the Contracting Parties to the Barcelona Convention in 2013, I clearly indicated that access to breeding caves must be regulated), the minimum that could be done would be to increase awareness and exercise some form of pressure on the local operators, so that at least behaviours in proximity of the caves are maintained within limits of common sense. None of this is happening. By contrast, I was unhappy to document a local operator bringing tourists inside the cave where the mother was nursing her pup aboard his inflatable vessel. When urged by me to get out and to behave more responsibly, his answer was to leave him in peace, this was his job and he knew what he was doing.

Tourist are being brought inside the cave aboard vessels by "professional" operators, just when mother seal is nursing her pup.

Tourists are being brought inside the cave aboard vessels by “professional” operators, just when mother seal is nursing her pup.

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