|Slaughter on the sand|
It’s drizzling in Hout Bay, a dreary winter’s day. Still, the buses are pulling up and the tourists clamber on to the tour boats that will take them to the islands.
“Come see the seals in their natural habitat!” is the rallying cry. And the tourists are happy to pay – for the tickets, for the photographs, for the harbour-side restaurants, for the locally made curios.
Seals, it seems, equal money.
At the far end of the harbour, in his dimly-lit seal rehabilitation centre, Seal Alert SA founder Francois Hugo inserts a tube down the throat of a mewling pup.
“These are my babies,” he says, emptying a 2-litre fish smoothie down a funnel. The pup chugs it greedily. More line up, baying loudly for their grub.
This is how Hugo spends his days, how he’s spent every day since he came across his first injured seal in 1999 – fetching hurt seals and abandoned pups, treating them, feeding them.
last year he filed for an urgent interdict with the Namibian ombudsman to stop the country’s annual seal harvest.
Starting this Sunday and continuing for 139 days, up to 80 000 pups will be beaten to death for their fur.
And 6 000 bulls will be shot, and their genitals removed and sold to the east as aphrodisiacs.
It’s a number which activists argue is far too high, contradicting the Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources’ (MFMR) own mandate of sustainable utilisation.
The quotas of pups to be killed each year – or total allowable catches (TACs) – are determined using a mathematical model that considers the results of aerial censuses and the rate of early pup mortality within the first few months of life, determined on the ground by researchers.
This rate is generally between 20 and 30 percent mortality, though environmental anomalies may skew the figures. In the mid-1990s, two of these back-to-back events wiped out up to a third of Namibia’s seal population.
Considering this, scientists submit recommendations to the ministry – in secret – and the minister decides on the year’s quotas.
Only, according to Hugo, the government figures aren’t adding up.
For example, the results of the aerial census in December 2005 showed a count of 65 000 at Cape Cross, one of the three harvesting sites. Adjusting for rocks, shadows, deaths before the census and births after, scientists estimate about 80 000 pups were born that season.
About 50 000 of those were to be harvested. But if 30 percent of the pups died before the harvesting season – a reasonable estimate most years – only 56 000 pups would still be alive at the start of the seal season. If the TAC were fulfilled, nearly the entire pup cohort for that colony would be killed.
“Using the government’s own figures, this is unsustainable,” insists Hugo.
Big quotas, however, are linked to the promise of more jobs.
The sealing industry is estimated to support fewer than 100 unskilled, part-time labourers for the 4½-month-long harvest each year – but this is not to be dismissed in a country with 51 percent unemployment.
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