Four Monk Seals Dead: A Conservationist’s Whodunit

A mystery, of sorts, is churning out on the Hawaiian Islands. In the last two months of 2011, four monk seals were found brutally beaten to death on four separate occasions between coastal areas of Molokai and Kauai.  Fingers have been pointed in all directions, while what remains to be solved is who committed these acts and for what reason(s).

The time and the place of these killings have given rise to more questions surrounding the case.  For starters, the dead seals have surfaced in the midst of a new campaign by the federal government pushing to open up and expand the area currently under government protection.  This has led to some resentment among local fishermen who are already finding their belts tightened in terms of providing for their families and livelihoods.   Because of already existing environmental factors—lack of fish to the area, changed migration and feeding patterns—those relying on the fishing in the area have already had to cut it back tremendously. 

Walter Ritte, a resident of the island of Molokai and an activist who first brought to attention the deaths of the monk seals, explains the underlying bitterness felt by many in the area:  “It’s really serious.  This attitude, this negative attitude toward the seals has overpowered the concern that this is a species that’s going to become extinct.”  Reminiscent of the giant pandas, the monk seals of Hawaii are often times incorrectly viewed as lazy animals too often remembered for being cute and lacking in strength. 

And just like the giant pandas, these monk seals are facing the real threat of extinction.  It is estimated that current numbers of monk seals is somewhere around 1,100 animals left in the world—an unsustainable number putting them right on course for complete extinction within the next 50 to 100 years. 

But while many are quick to point at the fishermen in this case, others argue that this is not so and that “there has been a concerted effort on all of the main Hawaiian Islands to eradicate the problematic introduced species.” This brings up yet another point. According to a report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in 2011, of the group surveyed at beaches and popular fishing areas, 35 percent of the people believe that monk seals are not native to the area.  Archaeological evidence that found monk seal bones in human trash pits in the area dating back to somewhere between the 15th and 18th centuries highly disputes this belief. 

So what happens now?  What is the next step?

For the time being, conservation groups and an anonymous donor have rallied together and raised $30,000 in the hopes of catching and charging guilty person(s) with the crime.  But what remains to be seen is what good finding the culprit will be in the long run.  In order to ensure that there is no future abuse to the monk seals, locals and residents of the island need to be better informed about the vulnerable state of the monk seals.  By providing information, the animals will hopefully no longer be considered a mystery or a threat. 

As one resident beautifully points out, “Fishermen have not only spoken out against the degradation of our ocean resources but have demonstrated that they are excellent stewards of this fragile environment.”  What better way to gauge support for these animals, then to have those closest to them looking out for their best interests.  To help spread the word about the monk seals plight in the Hawaiian Islands and to better inform the locals of their history, sign the petition here

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