New Internationalist

Seal slaughter on the Skeleton Coast

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Every year, tens of thousands of Cape fur seals are culled. The Namibian government says it’s a necessary measure to save fish stocks; protesters say it’s unlawful, unsustainable and cruel. By Aaron Gekoski.

Namibia’s Skeleton Coast is as harsh and inhospitable a region as its ominous name would suggest. Here, the full force of the Atlantic Ocean is met by the baking desert. It is a land of extremities: dense fog and sea breezes predominate, yet rainfall rarely exceeds 10 millimetres per year.

Aaron Gekoski
Aaron Gekoski

Yet to 700,000 Cape fur seals, this place is home. The fate of Namibia’s Cape fur seals is currently one of the most contentious wildlife issues around. This year, up to 85,000 pups and 6,000 bulls will be culled along this coastline. The pups, barely seven months old, are beaten over the head with a nail-embedded club before being stabbed in the heart and left to ‘bleed out’, as some vomit out their mother’s milk. Death, the government insists, is ‘instantaneous’. Opponents to the cull condemn this method, claiming the animals are beaten repeatedly, a clear breach of Namibia’s anti-cruelty laws.

The culling season runs for 139 days from July to November. It takes place during one lethal hour each morning. With so many seals to kill, 81 clubbers frenziedly wield their clubs, delivering indiscriminate blows. As they complete their morning’s work, bulldozers scoop up the carcasses and churn up the bloody beach, throwing a sandy blanket over the grisly scene.

The country’s reputation, once a shining beacon amongst the darkness that surrounds it, is taking a clubbing. Countries including the US are now boycotting Namibian products

The dead seals are then driven off to be skinned, before the pups’ fur is soaked in brine and sent to Turkey. Here they are turned into fur coats, which sell for up to $30,000 dollars. The bulls’ penises are removed; the only part of the animal that is utilized. These are used to create an aphrodisiac, and command approximately $500 each on the Asian market.

Back at the colony the gates are now opened to tourists who obliviously photograph the remaining seals, as thousands of mothers grieve for their lost pups.

Slaughter or harvest?

To many, clubbing baby seals to death is the ultimate act of barbarism; a slaughter of unthinkable proportions. To the Namibian government, it is a harvest, necessary to preserve dwindling fish stocks and create employment. This argument has been raging for some time now. And with every passing year, each side gets angrier; so much so that this year the government deployed their Special Forces to guard the culling site. In an effort to divert attention away from these beaches, the government also banned all journalists from the cull site. Just two years ago, a filmmaker and a journalist were beaten by the clubbers and thrown in jail for attempting to film the harvest and for working without a permit. This year, anyone who infiltrated the site might not be so lucky. A statement from marine conservation group Sea Shepherd warned: ‘It is now all but impossible to film the seal cull in Namibia. For anyone contemplating a filming or protest mission… the army will be ready for you… anyone caught will be beaten, arrested and thrown into one of the worst prisons in all of Africa. You enter at your own peril.’

Aaron Gekoski
A caved-in baby seal scull at Cape Cross Aaron Gekoski

It is fair to say I approached my trip to Namibia with some trepidation. I would be making the 4,000-kilometre trip to the Skeleton Coast with my colleague, wildlife filmmaker Chris Scarffe. Venturing from our home town of Tofo in Mozambique, we discussed the best way of traversing four countries. As penniless conservationists, we decided to drive it in our battered 1982 yellow Mercedes. It wasn’t the most appropriate choice for a mission across Africa and into the dark heart of Namibia’s seal culling trade, but it was the only one.

The figures don’t add up

With each passing year, pressure grows on Namibia’s government to cease the harvest. The country’s reputation, once a shining beacon amongst the darkness that surrounds it, is taking a clubbing. Countries including the US are now boycotting Namibian products. Analysts warn that continued culling may cost the country millions in lost taxes. And then there are the lost tourist dollars, as visitors are repelled by the negative publicity, plus the cost of deploying additional military units to monitor the harvesting sites.

While seal numbers have fallen, the cull has now become the second largest in the world, after Canada

When the cull only generates around US$125,000 in annual revenue for the government (eco-tourism generates around eight times more), creates so few jobs for local people, and with a backlash gathering momentum, why does it continue? The minister of fisheries, Bernhard Esau, claims that the seals consume 900,000 tons of fish a year: ‘We are not against the presence of seals in our waters, we just want to control matters so that we are not caught off-guard.’

To some however, the Namibian government’s figures don’t add up. ‘Since independence, the government increased its annual fishing harvest… without doing any sustainability studies,’ explained Pat Dickens, co-ordinator of Sea Shepherd. ‘They are not doing this to protect fisheries. This is a blatant case of gross mismanagement of resources based on economic greed.’

While seal numbers have fallen, the cull has now become the second largest in the world, after Canada. Around 90 per cent of the world’s seal pelts go through one man: Hatem Yavuz. Yavuz is a Turkish-born entrepreneur, currently living in Australia. Paying $7 per pelt, he has the contract to buy every skin resulting from the seal slaughter until 2019. Describing himself as an ‘animal lover’, he is unrepentant about his business. One of his Facebook comments read: ‘If humanity stops killing each other, maybe then the actions against furriers and animal killing maybe justified. You think about it. For the sake of humanity, try spending your money and time protesting Gaza.’

On high alert

Chris and I made our way from Tofo, through South Africa, across Botswana and towards Namibia. We’d heard reports of cars being stopped and searched for film equipment, so packed all gear into cool boxes, under sleeping bags and seats. We navigated the border successfully and headed to our rental house in Henties Bay, the nearest town to the cull site. Here we were staying with a group stationed in Namibia to protest the cull. The crew had been assembled by Earthrace Conservation Group’s founder Pete Bethune. Kiwi Bethune is one of the most hardcore animal rights activists on earth: just last year he was imprisoned for five months in Japan for boarding a whaling vessel and attempting a citizen’s arrest on the captain.

Aaron Gekoski
Filmmaker Chris Scarffe inspects footage on his way to the Skeleton Coast. All journalists were banned from covering the event this year. Aaron Gekoski

The protest group’s ultimate goal was to parade a dead seal outside of the parliament buildings in Windhoek whilst dressed in ‘death’ outfits. Although a hardened group of activists, they seemed concerned at recent events. The region was on high alert, with police and locals uncomfortable at being catapulted into the international limelight. Many of the cullers lived in Henties Bay; if our whereabouts were exposed we could be paid a visit by rather angry people with rather large clubs.

We spoke to some of the local people about the cull, the majority of whom supported their government’s stance. One shopkeeper who specialized in seal products such as fur coats, key rings and shoes told me: ‘I don’t see what the fuss is about. All over the world we kill animals for their skin and fur. Yet everyone has gone crazy about what happens here, it makes no sense.’

One shopkeeper told me: ‘I don’t see what the fuss is about. All over the world we kill animals for their skin and fur. Yet everyone has gone crazy about what happens here, it makes no sense’

The fishing community seemed to agree. One former-fisher-–turned-abalone-farmer, Johannes Erasmus, said: ‘A lot of “green” people protest against the culling of seals, but somewhere you need a balance between the seals and the fish. Culling is not a nice thing, but what is more important: feeding the people or saving the seals?’

Unlawful, unsustainable and cruel

The longer we stayed in the area, the tenser situation became. Twice, our car was thoroughly searched by police. Luckily, we had ditched our film gear at a local hotel. Once, we were tailed through the desert by a truck full of seal clubbers. News filtered through that a camera disguised as a rock had been found at the site. The government’s response was to deploy additional army units and three military ships at Cape Cross. We grew paranoid and stopped using mobile phones incase they were being tapped. We wiped all our hard-drives of photos, footage and research. And then, the final straw: a local newspaper released details of our location and the nationalities of the protest group. It was time to leave the area.

Aaron Gekoski
Aaron Gekoski

Elsewhere, another mini-war was raging, this one between the Namibian government and Seal Alert SA, the organization leading the way in calling for a ban. Its founder, Francois Hugo, recently commissioned his attorney to provide an opinion on the laws surrounding the cull. The findings showed the harvest to be ‘unlawful, unsustainable and cruel, and in violation of the constitution and the international trade in endangered species convention.’ The Prime Minister responded to these claims curtly. ‘Normally for something to be illegal, it needs to be declared by a court of law.’

Hugo would argue otherwise. He claims that the sealers are clearly violating Namibia’s anti-cruelty laws: and now he has the footage, taken by an unidentified group, to prove it. ‘Footage taken undercover clearly shows starving, extremely weak Cape fur seal pups being cruelly goaded, ill-treated, infuriated, terrified and tortured by sealers. These baby seal pups are forced to run towards seal clubbers who are then repeatedly beating them to death.’

‘We will continue harvesting seals and giving new rights. [The government is] going to issue new rights to people who’ve applied to harvest seals, and with that the quota of seals will also increase’

Again the government responded, this time raising the cull quota for next year. ‘We will continue harvesting seals and giving new rights. I’m going to issue new rights to people who’ve applied to harvest seals, and with that the quota of seals will also increase to create more direct jobs for the seal industry and indirectly for the fishing industry,’ said Esau. Regardless of threats from the international community, the government are standing firm. To them, the harvest creates jobs and remains an essential tool for controlling seal populations which are threatening the livelihood of Namibians. Yet animal welfare organizations and individuals like Bethune and Hugo will not cease their efforts until this ‘unsustainable seal genocide’ stops.

Seal genocide/slaughter/harvest/cull: whatever your stance, it seems likely that this debate will rage on a little longer.

Aaron Gekoski is a writer, photographer and filmmaker currently based in Cape Town. For more information on Aaron’s work visit aarongekoski.com.

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