Namibia's 'cruel' seal hunt sparks calls for tourism boycott

| 12th April 2012
Hunters clubbing seals to death in Namibia
The journalists were attacked as they filmed hunters slaughtering seals on the Namibian coast.

Ecologist Film Unit journalists were attacked in 2009 as they filmed hunters slaughtering seals on the Namibian coast

In the lead up to the new seal hunting season, activists have expressed dismay over the failure of Namibia to halt its annual slaughter of 91,000 Cape Fur seals

Activists are calling for an international boycott of Namibia's tourism and export products to bring about an end to the country's annual seal cull, due to begin in the next few months.

Although less well-known than the Canadian cull, the Namibian seal cull is just as controversial. More than 85,000 baby seals are clubbed to death every year away from the view of tourists and a further 6,000 adult seals are also killed, according to campaigners.

An Ecologist Film Unit journalist and an independent cameraman were attacked in 2009 while trying to film the slaughter of the seals in the Cape Cross Seal Reserve in northern Namibia.

The new campaign comes after an official meeting with Namibia's Ombudsman failed to change the Ministry of Fisheries' stance towards their annual slaughter of 91,000 Cape Fur seals. The government has claimed in the past that seals consume more than a third of the fishing industry's catch and that the cull is necessary to protect the fish industry.

Last month, protesters from The Foundation for Antarctic Research (TFAR) rallied at The New York Times Travel Show attended by representatives of Namibia's Tourism Ministry, distributing more than one hundred posters of a baby seal being beaten to death. They also explained to potential tourists how the methods used to hunt the eared seals, which are listed on Appendix II of CITES, violate the country's own Animal Protection Act.

'I have been informed that the African Travel Association and the Namibian Tourism Board are very much aware of our activities and our international boycott of Namibia has got them extremely worried,' says Pat Dickens, founder of the campaign group The Seals of Nam's and who helped with the protest.

Anti-sealing protests are scheduled to take place outside the Namibian embassy in Brussels and London's High Commission, and activists also have plans to gather in Sydney, Toronto, Cape Town, San Diego, and other cities across the globe.

Last year it seemed that the longstanding battle to end the world's largest slaughter of marine mammals would move forward when the Namibian Ombudsman Adv. John Walters invited the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA), Sea Shepherd, and the Society for the Protection of Animals (NSPCA) to join pro-sealers and relevant government representatives at a Windhoek meeting in September.

'A complaint, in the form of a legal opinion, was submitted to me with a request to investigate the allegations that: Namibia over-exploits its marine resources; it acts unconstitutionally and against its own laws, and it allows the cruel and inhuman killing of seals,' Adv. Walters wrote in an email.

Designed to allow each party an opportunity to present facts surrounding the government-approved deaths of 85,000 seal pups for their fur and 6,000 bulls for their penises, animal rights groups complained that after they made their presentations, the meeting turned into little more than a 'boardroom brawl'.

Gabriel Uahengo from Seal Products (Pty) Ltd accused foreign environmental groups of threatening Namibia's sovereignty by dictating how its government should manage its natural resources.

Titus Iilende, Deputy Director of Resource Management at the Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources, took the podium next. 'Mr. Lilende did not produce a single piece of peer-reviewed or documented scientific evidence regarding the ‘seal harvest,’ according to Sea Shepherd's Steve Roest and Laurens de Groot. 'Instead he explained that the assessment of seal numbers was based on some vague aerial picture and that the filmed evidence of illegal killing methods was all staged.'

Adv. Walters initially agreed to make a decision about the cull's legality at the end of March based on results of the survey to determine the number of seals in Angola, South Africa and Namibia conducted by the Benguella Current Commission. But at the end of February, they pushed back the date.

'I have now been informed by the Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources that the survey was in fact done during December 2011, and that the scientists of the respective countries are currently busy to analyse the data. The results of the survey are expected only at the end of May 2012,' he wrote in a letter to the parties present at the meeting.

Suspicious of the numbers produced by the Namibian government, Seal Alert SA and The Seals of Nam have teamed up to conduct the first independent survey of the entire Cape Fur seal population. On 1 June, they will be joined by celebrities and a film crew as they head up the west coast of Africa for two months.

Each year between July and November, seasonal workers carrying crude wooden clubs descend onto the remote Cape Cross Seal Reserve early in the morning. Video footage obtained by the Ecologist Film Unit journalist Jim Wickens and independent cameraman Bart Smithers shows the men standing in a line and bashing the skulls of of seal pups on the beach adjacent to the Atlantic Ocean.

According to campaigners, baby seals can regurgitate their mother's milk as a result of stress, others can suffocate, and mothers have been seen hovering over their dead pups.

Conservationists say that many of the seal pups are killed before they are weaned, but fur dealer Hatem Yavuz, who now controls 85 per cent of the international seal byproducts trade, denies this claim.

'I changed the method three years ago, he told the Ecologist in a phone interview. 'The point is, why would I go for a small baby pup that weighs 20kg when I can wait and get something that is bigger, fatter, older?'

Yavuz later acknowledged that animals killed for their fur and skins, including kangaroos and caracal, foxes and minx, along with other species less disturbing to the public's conscience, do inevitably suffer.

Adv. Walters has not responded to claims that the seal hunt is 'cruel and illegal'.

In 2007, the European Commission requested the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) to issue a scientific assessment of the welfare of seal hunting and to provide a detailed account of the methods that will reduce unnecessary suffering.

First it is important to stun the animal and check that it is unconscious, says Sheryl Fink, from the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW). 'Some people press the skull to make sure that it is completely crushed.' It is then necessary to bleed the animal immediately.

'In Canada seals that weren't bled right away sometimes regained consciousness,' Fink told the Ecologist, 'so when clubbers went on to kill the next seal, those thought to be unconscious would often wake you can imagine, this caused considerable suffering.'

These steps are attempted in Namibia, but the EFSA pointed out that it is impossible to place a well-landed blow on a seal that is running for its life. When the men hit the pup's skull with their wooden clubs and fail to properly stun it, they end up having to beat it to death.

Yavuz says his operations are 'the best worst option out there.' While many hunters in Canada and Norway kill seals and skin them right there on the ice, often leaving the carcass behind, Yavuz tells us that he uses the whole seal and donates some of the harvested meat to locals.

The EFSA ruled that since effective killing is not always practiced during commercial seal hunts, unnecessary and avoidable pain and suffering occurs. Soon after this ruling, Russia outlawed its commercial hunt for harp seals and banned the killing of all seals under the age of one year in March 2009. In June that same year, the European Parliament voted to ban the importation of seal products, which went into effect in 2010.

Environmentalists believe that the seal industry has declined precipitously since the United States, Mexico, and the 27 member European Union have all banned seal products. 'Canada issued 11,000 licenses for this year's hunt,' says Fink, 'but only 225 hunters actually showed up.' 'Prices for pelts have fallen as low as $17,' she added.

But Yavuz says that the EU's ban in particular has driven up demand for his seal fur apparel - which is processed in Turkey due to its strategic proximity to European fashion channels. 'Because seal fur is forbidden in Europe, coats are more valuable. People are willing to pay top dollar. Before they were banned they were just a regular product,' he says. One seal fur coat sells for up to US $32,000, an amount that activists claim is extravagant given that the men who are seasonally employed to kill Namibia's seals are living in shacks.

Figures in The Economics of Seal Hunting and Seal Watching in Namibia  - a report issued by Economists at Large and commissioned by Humane Society International (HSI) - show that in 2008, the wholesale price for pup pelts was US $5,20. Recent estimates run at US $7.

The sole contract holder for Namibia's seal pup pelts until 2019, Yavuz was not willing to say how much he pays for them, but insists that it is much more than US $7.

'We are responsible for feeding 300 Namibian families,' he says. 'And I am opening two new schools – nice ones.' Yavuz Group of Companies also supports cheetah conservation in Namibia, according to its founder. 'When you go to a country like Namibia and you are one company using their natural resources and controlling 85 per cent of the market, you have to give something back as a gesture,' he said.

Pro-sealers argue that the annual harvest is justified because seals compete with the fishing industry, which is the fastest growing sector of the Namibian economy. Adult Cape Fur seals eat approximately 270 kg of fish a year, including hake, sardines, and anchovies, but conservationists worry that culling seals without first conducting scientific studies could upset an already fragile and complicated ecosystem.

South African fishermen used the same argument before the government banned sealing in 1990, but the restoration of large seal colonies has not had a detrimental impact on South Africa's fishing industry since.

Asked whether the boycott could influence Namibia to re-think its seal harvesting policy, Fink says 'There is ample evidence that a properly planned and targeted consumer boycott can influence economic activities and public policy. For example, the decision by Canada to end the commercial hunt for whitecoat harp seals in 1980s has been attributed to an IFAW-led boycott of Canadian fish products in the UK.'

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