Sunny Canaries


THE MONK SEAL

(monachus monachus)

In 1995 a project went underway to reintroduce the monk seal into the Canary Islands, the “Medio Ambiente” (a government department for environmental protection) in conjunction with the European Commission carried out the studies as to the viability of the project. The Saharan colony was studied with special attention being paid as to what causes prevented the species from repopulating areas that they originally inhabited.

It is hoped that a colony of monk seals in the islands will act as a “bridge” between the populations of Madera (20 examples) and Cabo Blanco (100 examples) which are at the moment the only colonies remaining. Final agreements are now under discussion with Corralejo fishermen (who fear that their livelihoods will be under threat,) before reintroducing some seals to the Isla de Lobos. The “Isla de Lobos” was named for the seals as there was a large colony there before the Spanish conquest. The name actually means “Wolf Island” as the barking sounds of the seals sounded like wolves. The conquerors unfortunately killed them in such great numbers that any survivors never returned; the Canaries now have a chance to redress to some extent, their past behaviour.The monk seals are one of the mammal species most endangered in the world, it is estimated that scarcely 500 individuals remain in scattered colonies. Once they occupied a wide geographical range, colonies were found throughout the Mediterranean, The Mamara and the Black seas. The species also frequented the Atlantic coast of Africa, as far south as Mauritania, Senegal and the Gambia. The islands of Cape Verde, Madeira, the Azores and the Canary Islands also had colonies. More recently however, the species has disappeared from most of its range, with the most severe contraction and fragmentation occurring during the last 50 years.

Nation and Island groups where the monk seal has been eradicated during the 20th century include mainland France and Corsica, Spain and Balearic Islands, Italy, Sicily and the Toscana archipelago, Egypt, Israel, Lebanon and Tunisia. The species is also thought to be on the brink of extinction in the Marmara and Black Seas and the Adriatic coasts and Islands of Croatia. Despite sporadic sightings, the species seems effectively to be extinct in Sardinia. As a result of this range contraction the monk sea has been virtually reduced to the two populations of the archipelago, Madeira and Northwest Africa. The study showed that the survival of the colonies depends upon the cessation of human activities near the colonies and the planned creation of bridging colonies between them. The Canaries then have a crucial part to play in the seal’s chances of survival.

WHAT CAUSED THEIR NEAR EXTINCTION?

In ancient Greece, monk seals were placed under the protection of Poseidon and Apollo because they showed a great love for sea and sun. One of the first coins, minted around 500 BC, depicted the head of a monk seal, and the creatures were immortalised in the writings of Homer, Plutarch and Aristotle. To fishermen and seafarers, catching sight of the animals frolicking in the waves or loafing on the beaches was considered to be an omen of good fortune.Historically, humans hunted seals for the basic necessities of their own survival - fur, meat, oil, and medicines - but did not kill them in large enough numbers to endanger their existence as a species. Because of their trusting nature, they were easy prey for hunters and fishers using clubs, spears and nets. The pelts were used to make tents and were said to give protection against natures more hostile elements, especially lightning.

The skins were also made into shoes and clothing, and the fat used for oil lamps and tallow candles. Because the mammal was known to sleep so soundly, the right flipper of a seal, placed under a pillow was thought to cure insomnia.

Evidence suggests that the species was severely depleted during the Roman era. Following the fall of the empire, a reduction in demand may have allowed the monk seal to stage a temporary recovery, but not to earlier population levels. 

Commercial exploitation peaked again in certain areas during the Middle Ages, effectively wiping out the largest surviving colonies. Increasingly, survivors no longer congregated on open beaches and headlong rocks, but sought refuge along inaccessible cliff-bound coasts and in caves (often with underground entrances.) The massive disruption of two world wars, the industrial revolution, a boom in tourism and the onset of factory fishing all contributed to the monk seal’s decline.

NATURAL HISTORY 

Little information is available on this now reclusive species; the male averages 2.4 meters in length and weighs approximately 315kg. Females are slightly smaller, weighing around 300kg; Adults are generally brown or grey on the back and lighter on the belly. A white patch is common on the underside of the belly and other irregular light patches are not uncommon. Older males tend to be black; pups are born from 88-103 cm in length and weigh 16-18 kg with a white or yellow patch on the belly of an otherwise black, woolly coat. Having been virtually extirpated from much of its original habitat by human encroachment, females only pup now in caves in remote and relatively undisturbed areas. Males and females are thought to reach sexual maturity between 5 and 6 years, although some females may mature as early as 4 years. Pups are born over much of the year although births peak in September and October. The pups can swim and dive at about two weeks of age and are weaned at about 16-17 weeks. It is believed that they forage in near shore waters for fish and octopus and may live up to 20-30 years in the wild.

HUMAN THREAT

The monk seal is threatened by deliberate killings (fishers still consider the species a pest and a competitor for increasingly scarce resources), incidental capture in fishing gear, decreased food availability, destruction of habitat and human disturbance. Because the monk seal is sensitive to human disturbance, continued development of once isolated habitat has had a significant effect on the already fragmented and declining species. 

Compounding this is the animal’s low reproduction rate. 

Pups are susceptible to inclement weather in their birth caves, and may be washed away and drowned during storms. As early as 1985 and again in 1994, the French government initiated an experimental captive breeding project, which was abandoned on both occasions due to protests from the international monk seal scientific, and conservation communities. Pressure from some quarters to promote en-situ conservation measures, such as captive breeding and translocation continues, despite serious doubts over the wisdom of such initiatives. Other threats to the species include disease and toxic algae.

In the summer of 1997 two thirds of the largest surviving population of monk seals was wiped out within two months on the Cote des Phoques in the Western Sahara. While opinions on the precise causes of this epidemic remain sharply divided, the mass die-off emphasised the precarious status of a species already regarded as critically endangered throughout its range.

In the words of the Medio Ambiente, “We have to try to make amends for the debt accrued in the past when the islands drove the monk seal to extinction after relentless persecutions to obtain the meat, fat and skin of this charismatic animal.”


PRESA CANARIO

The Canarian Islands were named for the dogs that early seafarers found inhabiting them, domestic animals were part of the aboriginal culture and dogs had an important role in it.

They had many functions, they were used to watch over and herd goats and sheep, which were an important part of the aboriginal people’s economy.   

They were useful as a defence against the many raids made by invading forces and pirates, to guard property and were even consumed as food - usually on special occasions. To the native people the dog was a mythic and religious symbol.

From old records it can be ascertained that their dogs were “small, wild dogs, wolf-like in appearance, but smaller, very primitive and that they lived with the natives.” Other references describe them as “a medium sized animal of some similarity to the Australian Dingo, but of better build and wider forehead.”

So it seems that there were probably two types of dogs of differing size and physical characteristics. 

There are not many references to the native dogs but invaders and conquerors that came successively to the islands describe them as “ardent, brave animals of great stamina.”

These native dogs were the basis of later crossbreeding when the Spanish colonisers introduced different breeds. 

Once the slow, hard conquest of the islands was over, the dividing up and allotting of land started at the same time as colonists began arriving from mainland Spain and many other ports of Europe. The Canaries, as one of the archipelagos in the Macoronesia, could not escape the curiosity of travellers and explorers who landed on the islands in search of the secrets of the Neolithic culture that had existed in the islands until the 15th century.

The observation and study of the islands, the theories about their origins, which were linked at that time, to the myth of Atlantis along with their singular nature and geography all led to a series of tales, descriptions and travel memoirs.

The process of settling the islands had hardly begun when the Canary Islands became an almost obligatory stopover for Spanish ships sailing to America from the ports of Cadiz and Seville. The inclusion of the archipelago in shipping routes and its being a colonised settlement would mark its future, as very soon it would draw pioneers from many parts. Its strategic position in the Atlantic, which was vital to Spanish ships en route to America, was also a priority for Dutch, and more especially, English Corsairs.

According to the records of the time, in the centuries that followed the conquest and particularly the XVI and XVII various breeds of dog, including gun dogs, bulldogs and sheep dogs were brought to the islands along with other domestic animals. Dogs were very useful to the inhabitants of the islands, whose economy, essentially peasant and rural, was based on agriculture, livestock of seasonal pasturage and later on cattle, used for ploughing, so important to cereal growers.

 The imported dogs bred with the native dogs and some of these crosses resulted in a “breed” that has many characteristics in common with the present “Dogo Canaria” better known as the “Presa.” 

GOATS



CORY SHEARWATER 

The Canary Islands are a stop over for the Cory Shearwater (Pardela in Spanish) a bird that migrates mainly from the European continent to the coasts of Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina. During non –reproductive periods they can are found from the Gulf of Biscay and Great Britain to the east coast of America.

They are a protected species that live mainly on the sea, when they reach four years old they return to the islands, the place of their birth to reproduce. In February and March they survey and prepare nest sites, in May and June they lay their eggs and remain in the nest until the end of August. Their chicks leave the nest for the first time around 2 months later, a time of great danger from predators.  

The Cory Shearwater campaign, organised and carried out by the Island Government, involves monitoring the birds during this period of fledgling vulnerability. The last campaign rescued 359 disorientated or injured birds mostly in the La Oliva area, especially Corralejo; often light pollution disorientates them during their first flight towards the sea and they collide with lampposts, antennas or pylons. The chicks are also easy prey for rats, cats and humans who capture them for their fat or to eat. 94 plundered nests were also found; sometimes they were plundered by cats but often by human poachers who know the caves to which the birds return each year and of the birds increased vulnerability on land. The successful campaign was a joint effort of the islands environmental agency, police and guardia civil aided by many local people. Unfortunately 21 of the 359 birds rescued were dead or died shortly afterwards and 5 were transported to the Wild Fauna Recovery Centre at Tafira Gran Canaria for treatment and later release. 

If you find an injured bird, please inform the Environmental Service. (Number


THE GUIRRE

The Guirre or Alimoche (Neophron percnopterus)is without a doubt the most emblematic bird of Fuerteventura and the most beneficial. It is the only carrion eating bird of prey of the Canaries, cleaning the land of dead animals thus preventing the propagation of illness. Furthermore in Fuerteventura it has a great cultural importance and there are many legends regarding the bird that have been transmitted orally during centuries. Considered a sacred bird, it was present on the island amongst the native people before the Europeans conquerors arrival. One myth about the Guirre relates that when they feel the presence of death they fly into the sky and disappear into the air.  

The Guirre is a bird of large size, with almost 1.65 metres of wingspan, a height of 70 centimetres and weighing around 2 kilos. It specialises in eating all types of carrion, from insects, rubbish and excrement to dead goats. The adult silhouette is unmistakeable, white with a wide band of black on its wings and a yellow face. Young birds are blackish but their plumage becomes gradually lighter over 5 years until it is like its parents and they are ready to breed. Basically a migratory bird, Fuerteventura is one of the few places in the world where its population is sedentary, but in winter examples from Africa or Europe can reach the island attracted by the abundant farm livestock. In this epoch they like to sleep together in quiet places, normally on electricity pylons, but from January they begin to occupy their breeding grounds in solitary pairs.  They usually lay 2 eggs in April and incubate them together for 42 days; normally only 1 chick survives, the first to be hatched, it makes its first flight around 75 days later (towards the middle of July) then after a short period of learning, the young birds become completely independent. 

Lamentably, the bird is about to disappear from the archipelago- extinct since the 80’s in Gran Canaria and Tenerife and scarce in Lanzarote, Fuerteventura is its last haven. There are only 22 nesting pairs on the island, which represents 91% of the Canarian population. Here too there are problems for the birds and their population is 35% less than it was 10 years ago and decreasing.  

The problems of the Guirre are many fold, the majority are man made- the product of the great economic and social changes that have occured since the middle of the century. The countryside has suffered a profound transformation; herbicides and pesticides have become poisons for the the wild fauna and flora; farming has been largely abandoned and herds becoming rarer and  there are less dead animals left on the land- the principal source of the Guirres alimentation. The growth of urban and touristic areas, new roads, paths, quarries and rubbish tips have meant the alteration and destruction of  their habitat and four wheel drive vehicles are destroying the tranquility of many of the places where they have been accustomed to rear their young. Added to these factors are electrocution or collisions  against electric lines and poisoning by the consumtion of illegal bait put down to poison dogs and cats.

The environmental agency of the Canarian Government have put into action  a plan of action of study, investigation and conservation to try save the guirre from extinction. With regard to conservation they are trying to increase the birds chances of survival by creating feeding grounds and placing and encouraging farmers to leave dead animals on the land and to educate people not to take eggs and chicks and to use poisons.

They are also working with biological stations, ringing the birds and trying to make a demografic model to predict the future evolution of the species by genetic studies of the species and their habitat. 

Help is needed from everyone to save the Guirre from extinction; you can collaborate to ensure that its silhouette is again familiar in the Fuerteventura sky by; -

Telling others of the importance of its conservation.

Never leaving dead animals in plastic sacks, as well as contaminating the island the bags impede the Guirres access to this food source.

Avoiding any kind of disturbance to the breeding grounds and barrancos (dry river beds) from January to July. This is a very sensitive species that needs tranquillity to rear its chicks.

Never approach a nest and never ever touch or take away eggs or chicks. Not only is this species protected by law but you will also contribute to its extinction.

Inform the environmental agency Medio Ambiente any activity that you consider a danger to the species including the putting down of poison and the opening of roads or nest robbing. (Telephone number)

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