Sunday, June 8, 2008

Pay homage to the Caribbean Monk Seal

Further from home, one of the first things I read when I got back was that the Caribbean Monk Seals are officially extict. According to a report in Time magazine,

(HONOLULU) — Federal officials have confirmed what biologists have long thought: The Caribbean monk seal has gone the way of the dodo.

Humans hunting the docile creatures for research, food and blubber left the population unsustainable, say biologists who warn that Hawaiian and Mediterranean monk seals could be the next to go.

The last confirmed sighting of a Caribbean monk seal was in 1952 between Jamaica and Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula. The National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration's Fisheries Service confirmed Friday that the species is extinct.

Kyle Baker, a biologist for NOAA's Fisheries Service southeast region, said the species is the only seal to become extinct from human causes.

The seals were first classified as endangered in 1967, and wildlife experts investigated several reported sightings over the past few decades. But officials determined they were other seal types.

The federal agency says there are fewer than 1,200 Hawaiian and 500 Mediterranean monk seals remaining, and their populations are declining.

"We hope we've learned from the extinction of Caribbean monk seals, and can provide stronger protection for their Hawaiian and Mediterranean relatives," Baker said.

The Hawaiian monk seal population, protected by NOAA, is declining at a rate of about 4 percent annually, according to NOAA. The agency predicts the population could fall below 1,000 in the next three to four years, placing the mammal among the world's most endangered marine species.

"When populations get very small, they become very unstable," Baker said. "They become more vulnerable to threats like disease and predation by sharks."

Vicki Cornish, a wildlife expert at the Ocean Conservancy, said the fate of the Caribbean monk seal is a "wake-up call" to protect the remaining seal populations.

"We must act now to reduce threats to existing monk seal populations before it's too late," she said. "These animals are important to the balance and health of the ocean. We can't afford to wait."

Monk seals are particularly sensitive to human disturbance. And the sea creatures have been losing their food supply and beaches, officials say.

"Once Hawaii, the Caribbean and the Mediterranean were teeming with fish, but these are areas under severe fishing pressure," Cornish said. "They'll eat almost anything — shellfish or finned fish — but their food supply is waning and they're in competition with man."

The Caribbean monk seal, first discovered during Christopher Columbus' second voyage in 1494, once had a population of more than 250,000. But they became easy game for hunters because they often rested, gave birth or nursed their pups on beaches.

From the 1700s to 1900s, the seals were killed mainly for their blubber, which was processed into oils, used for lubrication and coating the bottom of boats. Their skins were used for trunk linings, clothing, straps and bags.

The endangered Hawaiian monk seals face different types of challenges, including entanglement in marine debris, climate change and coastal development.

About 80 to 100 live in the main Hawaiian Islands and 1,100 in the largely uninhabited Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, a marine national monument.

Biologist Bud Antonelis said NOAA's Fisheries Service has developed a monk seal recovery plan for the Hawaiian monk seals.
"But we need continued support from organizations and the public if we are to have a chance at saving it from extinction," he said. "Time is running out."

As for the Caribbean monk seal, NOAA said it is working to have them removed from the endangered species list. Species are removed from the list when their populations are no longer threatened or endangered, or when they are declared extinct.

Makes one wonder, will we along with the Tatas do the Olive Ridleys what the Hawaiians did to the Monk Seals?

The first trek

There is always a charm about the first trek of the season. After more than 6 months of hibernation, we emerge from our feather jackets and heater-warmed homes and head out to high passes, valleys and sometimes even an early climb. This year, the first trek was to the Tosh Valley.

A tributary of the Parvati, the Tosh Nullah has the distinction of perhaps having as much water, if not more than the main river. It winds its ferocious way through Tosh village, Budhaban (a fabulous, idyllic meadow at 2800m surrounded by forests on all sides, Shiadi (another lovely meadow that was spotted with the first flowers of the season, Sharm Thach (at 3500m but still in the grip of cold with few flowers and regular sleet) and Shamshi Thach (a flat piece of land that will turn green only later in the season with fabulous views of peaks - Papusa, White Sail, Kullu Makalu and passes - Sara Umga and the trail to Animal Pass).

The most exciting part of the trek for me was that Tikam Dai - a 65-year-old Nepali who works with me regularly and has been around most areas in Western Himalayas for nearly 50 years - and I went upto Animal Pass. It connects the Tosh valley to Malana Glacier from where you can either choose to come out at Malana near Manikaran or at Jagatsukh near Manali. At 4500m its more challenging, remote and prettier than the Chanderkhani Pass. And for some reason hasn't been high on trekking schedules till date. The route is sparsely used and seems like Gaddis are the only ones who use it.

For the group, Vikas and gang of 11 from Nagpur and Mumbai, the high point of the trek was to go to the mouth of the Tosh glacier. Of course, for those seeing a glacier for the first time, it is difficult to imagine that all that mud and rock hide so much ice beneath.

The route itself is popular with only climbers and those who want to attempt the Sara Umga pass, that is challenging even without all the snow to complicate it. Ideal for those who want to trek early in the season and yet dont want to do a beaten trail.