A LITTLE IMAGINATION

Sadruddin Aga Khan


The author with the orphaned monk seal pup Efstratia on Alonissos

While gladly seizing this opportunity to write The Monachus Guardian’s first ever Guest Editorial, I have to admit that sitting down with pen and paper was not quite as simple as I had first imagined.

What, exactly, would I write about? Under other circumstances, I might have chosen to relate my own moving experiences with the monk seals Theodoros and Efstratia on Alonissos in the Northern Sporades Marine Park – two orphans that would almost certainly have perished without human assistance. I might also have written about the frustrations involved in mounting a coherent international campaign for such a critically endangered species, particularly where indifference and bureaucracy seem to erect one demoralising hurdle after another. I might have focused on the inexplicable decision of the EU and other funding agencies to cut financial assistance to Greek and Turkish monk seal projects – at the precise moment that substantial progress is being made in creating protected areas. Alternatively, I might have explored the growing concerns over animal welfare as some scientists appear to be spending more time harassing monk seals during the course of their research than devising solutions to protect them.

Yet in considering the contents of the current issue, I cannot miss this opportunity of commenting upon mass tourism’s devastating impact upon the Mediterranean monk seal and its habitat.

Promoting the cause of sustainable, environmentally-friendly tourism, the 1992 Rio Earth Summit promised all sorts of initiatives to protect endangered species and vulnerable habitats from the lethal excesses of this lucrative global industry. In its wake came Green Globe, ECoNETT and various other projects promoted by the tourism sector to improve its own environmental track record. While such efforts are laudable in and of themselves, in the case of the Mediterranean monk seal – a species so unrelentingly victimized by the industry since the 1950s – it is hard to escape the suspicion that all of this represents little more than hot air.


As indicated in this issue’s main article by William M. Johnson and David M. Lavigne, tourism continues to play a fundamental role in the final eradication of the monk seal, and even poses a serious threat in the protected areas that are at last being established for the species. Monk seals are still being harassed in their caves by tourists and speed boats. Elsewhere, monk seal habitat is being turned into coastal development strips dominated by resort complexes. As far as anyone can see, the beaches of the Mediterranean are still littered with plastic, and polluted with oil and tar. Incredibly, seals have even been speargunned by snorkelling tourists – no doubt a magnificent trophy to human stupidity.

The question is, Can anything be done? Over the years, I have discussed monk seal conservation with numerous people, from government ministers to businessmen and scientists, from conservation activists to school children. Ironically, it is often the young who have the clearest idea of what needs to be done. It is the young who are impatient for answers, intolerant of delay. Where others find themselves wallowing in bureaucratic quicksand, the young often see common sense solutions and cannot understand why establishment figures are reluctant to seize the initiative. Some might call this naivete, but one wonders whether this is just the cynic’s way of justifying inaction.

For the last of the monk seals who are losing their homes and their lives to mass tourism, a little imagination could go a long way. It is, for example, not difficult to imagine how the tourism industry could – with no noticeable financial pain to itself – make a significant contribution towards saving Europe’s most endangered marine mammal. It could provide funding for grassroots conservation projects in the fields of environmental education and the guarding of marine reserves. It could bring its prodigious lobbying powers to bear in supporting the conservation effort, speeding the creation of protected areas and developing alternative tourism opportunities. It could print its own educational material on the importance of the Mediterranean marine ecosystem, of which the monk seal is a vital symbol.

Some might argue that the industry is under no moral or financial obligation to the monk seal. Regardless of the compelling evidence to the contrary, I ask readers to consider one vital point. This is not a case of charities going, cap in hand, in search of corporate generosity. Quite the contrary. In numerous cases, small grassroots projects in Greece, Turkey and elsewhere are actually subsidising this billion dollar industry through conservation activities that seek to prevent or repair the specific damage caused by tourism. Although they can ill-afford it, they are establishing marine parks and deploying patrol boats, mounting conservation education campaigns and reaching out to governments, industry and the general public for a helping hand. It is high time that the travel industry reciprocated.