The Namibian (Windhoek)
3 January 2008
Posted to the web 3 January 2008
THE killing methods used in Namibia for the annual seal hunt at the coast are not always applied correctly and the small pups clubbed to death are often not yet dead and feel the pain of being skinned alive while still conscious, a reputable authority of the European Union (EU) found in a report issued at the end of last year.
"When seals are hit or shot, but are not dead, they may have to be hit or shot again or may they be moved or skinned whilst conscious, resulting in avoidable pain, distress and fear.
Seals may be struck and left with injuries that may cause suffering and affect their survival in the wild," the European Food Safety Authority (Efsa) stated in a damning report.
The EU is about to draft laws to ban all imports and sales of seal products into its 27 member states, which will include those from Namibia.
The EU requested (Efsa) to compile a scientific opinion about the animal welfare aspects of the killing and skinning of seals in order to draft the laws.
About 175 000 seals are culled each year worldwide, with Canada, Greenland and Namibia jointly accounting for 60 per cent of the kills.
About 77 800 seal pups were clubbed to death in 2006 in Namibia, just below the quota of 85 000 pups set by the Ministry.
The quota for adult seal males was set at 6 000, but only 5 300 were killed.
For 2007, the quota was set at 80 000 pups and 6 000 bulls.
The males are shot with .22 rifles fitted with silencers.
The pups, however, are bludgeoned to death with wooden clubs, as allegedly their skulls are too soft to be shot.
Once hit several times with the club, and assumed dead, they are cut with a knife to "bleed out" and are then skinned.
The EU authority found that the pups are often still alive when skinned.
The EU adopted a recommendation on seal culling in 2006, inviting its member states to ban all cruel seal hunting methods.
The EU parliament then adopted a declaration in this regard and requested its administrative arm, the European Commission (EC) to draft a regulation to ban the import, export and sale of seal products.
Efsa was commissioned to compile a scientific opinion and to assess the most humane killing methods.
"While held in groups (during the hunt), the seal pups, which are still nursed by their mothers, are tightly bunched together and frequently attempt to clamber over each other.
It is common for some of these pups to be kept in these large groups for over thirty minutes before they are stunned (clubbed to death), during which time they may succumb to overheating or suffocation, or vomit milk, a distressing experience," the Efsa report stated.
"Hunting operations for suckling pups cause high stress and exertion levels among the animals, including those which are eventually killed and those which escape," it added.
"Whether or not the hunting regulations are adhered to, most seals in the vicinity of the hunt (except those which are killed) flee into the sea.
"This causes nursing mothers to become separated from their pups.
During the hunting season in Namibia, this disturbance is repeated during most days of the week at the three colonies where hunting occurs."
At Cape Cross, the daily seal cull during the culling season (July to November) is done between 05h00 and 9h00 so that no hunting is going on when tourists arrive to watch the seal population from about 10h00.
The daily operations affect the attendance of seal mothers and may cause the nursing of those pups, which escape the hunt, to end prematurely, according to Efsa.
"It is unknown what proportion of pups are capable of surviving independently of their mothers when forcibly weaned at this stage during the culling season."
Efsa concluded that seals are sentient mammals, which can feel pain, distress, fear and other forms of suffering.
The EU body found that "it is possible to kill seals rapidly and effectively without causing them avoidable pain or distress."
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However, reported evidence was available that, in practice, effective and humane killing does not always happen.
If clubbing was applied correctly, a seal pup could be killed with one blow, Efsa noted, but it criticised that keeping the pups in groups huddled together for a longer time than necessary was causing too much fear and stress for them.
In Namibia, Efsa found that the culling of seal pups "causes considerable disturbance to breeding colonies" like fear and distress.
"Both targeted and non-targeted animals may sustain injuries before being killed or escaping, while some non-targeted seals may sustain injuries before being released or escaping."
Efsa further noted that in Namibia "not all animals which are clubbed or shot are killed or rendered irreversibly unconscious" before knifed to bleed out in order to ensure death.
"Reportedly, seal pups are frequently not properly bled out, resulting in some animals regaining consciousness or remaining conscious for considerable periods of time."
Efsa recommended independent monitoring of seal culling in Namibia, which should also be independent of industry, commercial interests and of NGOs.
Culling and hunting of seals should also be open to inspection.
"The training of hunters is important to ensure a high standard of competence in firearm and club use, as well as effective techniques to monitor unconsciousness and death of the seals during these operations," the scientific opinion noted.
Efsa prepared a draft report through a working group of the Animal Health and Animal Welfare (AHAW) Panel and discussed them in October 2007.
Around 25 organisations from 11 countries attended.
The final opinion was made public at the end of last year.
The EU member states will now decide on the next steps.
According to experts and international animal welfare groups, the EU is most likely to stop all imports of products made from seals like leather shoes, fur coats and jackets made from the skins of the seal pups and bulls.
In Namibia, shoes and other leather products made from seal hides are sold.
According to the South African NGO Seal Alert, the two Namibian outfits that have the licence to kill seals are also exporting the dried penises of seal bulls to China, where they are sold as aphrodisiacs rumoured to increase the sexual potency of men.
Twenty young seals from the Cape Cross nature reserve were exported live to China in September 2007, after they were kept in quarantine for a month.
The seal pups were about one year old and captured by one of the Namibian seal quota holders, Seal Products, for a South African company, African Game Services.
The 20 seal pups were sent to a firm called Northern International Company in China, according to the permit issued by the Namibian authorities.
The fate of the young seal pups in China is unknown, but they were allegedly not destined for a zoo.
Attempts to obtain information from either the Fisheries or Environment and Tourism Ministries, also about what the Chinese company paid for the pups, were unsuccessful.
A Namibian company, Kataneno Hunt, is also offering hunting trips to the coast to shoot seal bulls, which are usually very tame when onshore.
The "hunt" is offered between September and November and in 2007 cost about 1 200 euros (N$ 12 000) per day.
"At the coast not far from Swakopmund, Cape fur seal hunts can be arranged, ideally with a fishing trip and/or tourist trip," Kataneno writes on its website.