The Mediterranean monk seal (Monachus monachus) is one of the world’s most endangered marine mammals. With fewer than 600 individuals currently surviving it is believed to be the world’s second-rarest seal species – second only to the Saimaa ringed seal.
The species is described as ”critically endangered” by the World Conservation Union (IUCN).
The Mediterranean monk seal is present in parts of the Mediterranean Sea as well as the eastern Atlantic Ocean waters around the Tropic of Cancer.
In ancient Greece one of the first coins, minted around 500 BC, depicted the head of a monk seal, and the creatures were immortalized in the writings of Homer, Plutarch and Aristotle.
Humans hunted Mediterranean monk seals for the basic necessities of their own survival – fur, oil, meat, medicines – but in early antiquity did not kill them in large enough numbers to endanger their existence as a species. Their pelts were used shoes and clothing, and the fat used for oil lamps and tallow candles. Because the animal was known to sleep so soundly, the right flipper of a seal, placed under the pillow, was thought to cure insomnia. The fat was also used to treat wounds and contusions in both humans and domestic animals.
The massive disruption of two world wars, the industrial revolution, a boom in tourism and the onset of industrial fishing all contributed to the Mediterranean monk seal’s decline and subsequent disappearance from much of its former range.
The Mediterranean monk seal is nowadays threatened by habitat deterioration and loss by coastal development; deliberate killing by fishermen and fish farm operators, who consider the animal a pest that damages their nets and ‘steals’ their fish; accidental entanglement in fishing gear leading to death by drowning; decreased food availability due to over-fishing pressures; and outbreaks of disease.