Thousands of Cape fur seal pups and adults found dead in Namibia

The mass die-offs have been observed at Namibia’s seal colonies at Pelican Point, Luderitz, Cape Cross and Henties Bay. Photo: Naudé Dreyer/Ocean Conservation Namibia/Namibian Dolphin Project/Facebook

Mid-November and early December is breeding season for Cape fur seals, but thousands of female seals this year aborted their foetuses. Experts say a number of factors could be causing the deaths. WARNING: Some pictures and videos in this article may disturb sensitive viewers.

Ocean Conservation Namibia (OCN) has launched a funding campaign to get answers to the mysterious deaths of thousands of seal pups and adults. 

The organisation, along with the Namibian Dolphin project, released a statement in October, explaining that mid-November and early December is breeding season for Cape fur seals, but that thousands of female seals this year aborted their foetuses. 

According to OCN’s Naudé Dreyer, the first pre-term pups were found at the Pelican Point colony in Namibia in late August to mid-September. 

The mass die-offs have been observed at Namibia’s seal colonies at Pelican Point, Luderitz, Cape Cross and Henties Bay.

“A few deaths are not unusual. But Last week I returned to Pelican Point and saw hundreds of aborted foetuses on one day. That is when the alarm bells went off,” he said. 

Between 6 and 8 October, Dreyer said there were too many freshly dead preterm pups to count, and estimated that over 350 juvenile and adult Cape fur seals had also died. 

Multiple pre-term Cape fur seal foetuses collected in October to be sampled for vets and scientists. Photo: Namibian Dolphin Project/Facebook

“This spike in deaths is far higher than normally seen and extremely worrying to both local and international experts,” Dreyer said. 

To investigate the deaths, Dreyer has teamed with Namibian Dolphin Projects’ Dr Tess Gridley and Dr Simon Elwen, and Department of Botany and Zoology professor at Stellenbosch University, veterinarian Dr Brett Gardner. 

Samples are being collected to make sense of the deaths. 

A still of drone footage showing the scale of Cape fur seal pup deaths. Photo: Naudé Dreyer/ Ocean Conservation Namibia/Facebook

Gardner explained that there are many possible reasons for the mass dying-off of the seals. 

“The list of possible causative factors is long and high rates of abortions are often caused by an interplay of more than one factor.”

Authorities in Namibia and South Africa are urged to stay vigilant, as well as residents and beachgoers. 

However, do not attempt to come close to the seals. When a mother loses her pup, she mourns for days, Dreyer revealed, and often carries her dead baby around during that time.

“The impact of this die-off at the Pelican Point colony, and possibly further afield, may be felt for years to come.”

In 1994, 10,000 Cape fur seals died and 15,000 foetuses were aborted. This event was due to starvation, due to a shortage of fish and a secondary bacterial infection. 

If you have observed mass die-offs of Cape fur seals in your region, email or Whatsapp your results to 081 149 7377 or info@ocnamibia.org. You can also click here for a form detailing your findings, to better help scientists get to the bottom of the mass die-off mystery.

(Compiled by Nica Richards)

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