Monday, 31 August 2015

Five near-blind monk seals become ambassadors for vanishing species

For the first time, Hawaiian monk seals are on public display outside of the Aloha State. Conservationists hope the new ambassadors at the Minnesota Zoo will help bring more attention (and funds) to the endangered, declining species

Monday 31 August 2015 09.11 BSTLast modified on Monday 31 August 201510.57 BST

The Hawaiians call their monk seals ilio-holo-i-ka-uaua or “the dog that runs in rough water,” but when I see my first one, I think: whoa, that’s more like a bear. And indeed, a female Hawaiian monk seal weighs up to 240 kilograms – about the size of a Eurasian brown bear. Although the Hawaiian monk seals are clearly powerful, hefty animals – twice as heavy as an English mastiff – their wide, black, velvety eyes make them hard to resist. And I find myself quickly enamoured.

You may think I’m on a Hawaiian beach soaking up the sun when I see my first living, breathing monk seals, but I’m not. I’m thousands of miles away in the cold, landlocked Midwest at a press event a few days before the public debut of five female seals at the Minnesota Zoo. It’s a landmark debut: these are the first Hawaiian monk seals on public display outside of the Aloha State.

“We have been working for a long time to get more high quality zoos and aquariums to house monk seals,” said Charles Littnan, a lead scientist and monk seal expert with NOAA. “Most people in the U.S. don’t realise there is species of seal, an old and unique species, struggling against extinction in Hawaii. The Minnesota Zoo brings the seals’ plight to over a million people every year, people far removed from the tropical shores of Hawaii.”

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