The IUCN Red Data Books make sombre reading. They are the catalogue of those species which are facing extinction I have a copy on the bookshelf by my computer, and read them regularly. Each year of the list of species which has been officially pronounced to be extinct grows longer. In 1996, this sad little list of the damned, was joined by a little-known marine mammal called the Caribbean Monk Seal.
The Caribbean monk seal was a relatively small seal, the upperparts nearly uniform brown, tinged with gray; the sides paler; and the underparts pale yellow or yellowish white.
It was the only member of the Pinnipeds ( seals, sea-lions and walruses), ever to have been found in the tropical New World. The first documented sightings by Westerners took place in 1494 when they are less a personage than Christopher Columbus observed a herd of what he described as “sea wolves” on the coast of Santo Domingo. He promptly ordered his crew to kill eight of the animals for food. This was only the beginning of centuries of horrific exploitation of this vulnerable species which continued up until the 20th century.
Although the creature had actually been known since the 15th century, Museum specimens were not acquired until nearly 400 years later and very little is known about its biology. It appears that these animals preferred shallow sandy beaches for their breeding grounds, and this made them particularly vulnerable to predation from man. While on land they were sluggish and had no fear of man, a trait that permitted their slaughter to the point of extinction. In former years they were used extensively as a source of oil.Apparently, the young were born in early December because several females killed in the Triangle Keys during this time had well-developed foetuses.
The Caribbean monk seal was already rare by the 1700s, because it had not only been hunted for food but it was persecuted by who believe that they were threatening fish stocks but the species just about managed to survive. The last recorded Caribbean Monk Seal in the United States was killed in 1922 off the coast of Key West in Florida and the last confirmed sighting occurred off Seranilla Bank - between Jamaica and Honduras, where a small colony was known to have lived - in 1952.
Monk seals are amongst the most primitive pinnipeds, they are particularly vulnerable to environmental change and encroachment. Both of the other two species - the Mediterranean, and the Hawaiian monk seals are highly endangered and look unlikely to survive unless great efforts are made to preserve the species. In response to recent unconfirmed Caribbean monk seal sightings in areas within their historical range, surveys have been carried out as late as 1993, but to no avail.
However, all may not be quite lost. In an extraordinary new book called Mysterious Creatures George M. Eberhart gives us some hope of that these sad little animals may possibly have survived when he notes that 16 out of 93 Haitian and Jamaican fishermen interviewed in 1997 claimed to have seen at least one monk seal in the previous two years. If this is true - and everybody in the Cryptozoological research community sincerely hopes and prays that it is - then humanity may possibly have been granted a rare second chance to preserve an animal for posterity rather than destroying it.
Watch this space.