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Endangered seal shows signs of recovery

Words by Smiley Team

In the sunny tropics, an adorable seal species is showing signs of hope recovering. After 20 years of its numbers rising at a worryingly slow pace, conservationists are celebrating a sudden leap.

Michelle Barbieri, the lead scientist at NOAA’s Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program told Associated Press: “We are out there ourselves and working with partners to conduct life-saving interventions for seals, prioritizing females, which are going to go on to create the future generation of seals. 

“We’re starting to really see that continued payoff of intervening to save animals’ lives.”

Hawaiian monk seals, the sole seal species to inhabit the tropics, are one of the most endangered creatures in the animal kingdom. Its recovery is a positive sign for biodiversity more broadly.

“If we have healthy monk seals we know that the ecosystem that is supporting those animals is healthy and thriving,” Barbieri explained. 

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Before lockdown, the marine agency which monitors their numbers recorded slow growth in the population of 2% per year from 2013 to 2021. 

When the pandemic hit, they were devastated to have to stop recording for almost two years. Their last 2019 visit had raised causes for concern about the survival of seal pups and habitat loss.

So they were all the more ecstatic to find on return in 2021 that the seals were doing better than expected.

In fact, as they discovered this month, the population is thriving compared to its performance over more than two decades. From an estimate of 1,435 seals in 2019, the population has shot up to more than 1,500 this year.

Despite the encouraging increase in numbers, conservationists remain concerned. 

In some parts of the seal population, worryingly few pups are surviving for a year or more. Meanwhile, habitat loss due to climate change remains an issue for seals on the low-lying islands. 

However, teams from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are returning to the seals’ Hawaiian Island habitat for 2022, with renewed determination to research and make life-saving interventions.

Inspired to act?

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