Subject: Race against clock to save rare seals

Mike Williamson (
Tue, 30 Sep 1997 13:39:22 -0400 (EDT)

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Date: Mon, 29 Sep 97 11:24:00 GMT 
Subject: Race against clock to save rar

Race against clock to save rare seals

  By Amanda Brown, Environment Correspondent, PA News
   Vets are working against the clock to find out what is killing
Europe's rarest mammal.
   The Mediterranean Monk Seal faces extinction unless a desperate
gamble is taken with the lives of the remaining few specimens, an
Edinburgh meeting of the British Veterinary Association was told.
   Only around 500 seals remain, living mostly in the Aegean Sea
between Greece and Turkey where pressure from mass tourism is forcing
them off the quiet sandy beaches they need to rear their pups.
   There is also a small colony in the Atlantic and they breed along a
small stretch of the Moroccan coast.
   Professor John Harwood Head of the Sea Mammal Research Unit in St
Andrews, said a mysterious epidemic killed at least 120 seals earlier
this year.
   Vets are now trying to find the cause and prevent a recurrence
wiping out the surviving population.
   The seals were either poisoned by toxic algae or hit by a virus
similar to the one which killed thousands of common seals in the North
Sea during the 1980s.
   But there is still no agreement on which was responsible - most of
the seals washed up on the North African coast were too badly
decomposed to give definitive answers.
   Algal blooms occur roughly every 10 years in that area and if they
were the cause, the next time could finish off the remaining
population, said Prof Harwood.
   The only solution may be to try to establish a new colony around
the Canary Islands where the algae does not occur.
   But this strategy is very risky as the seals might die as a result
of capturing and transporting them.
   Taking them away would further reduce the survival chances of the
remaining group.
   Adult seals would probably try to swim back to their original home
and so the best bet would be to try to capture young seals. However,
young animals are more likely to die of other causes and so scientists
would have to take a larger group to guarantee that enough animals
survive to adulthood.
   If scientists think the gamble is worth taking, it could be five or
six years before they know whether it has paid off, Prof Harwood said.