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Caspian seal population is in danger: Aselle Tasmagambetova and Mirgaliy Baymukanov

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It is gratifying to see that the press pays attention to the protection of nature. Hola edition.kz has devoted a large and interesting article to the protection of the Caspian Sea endemic, Pusa caspica. The only mammal of our sea is finally included in the Red Book. But state protection is a necessary, though not sufficient, condition for the conservation of the species. Scientists, conservationists, volunteers, veterinarians and just concerned citizens have a lot of work ahead of them to restore the number of animals. Now, according to the director of the Central Asian Institute of Ecological Research Aselle Tasmagambetova and director of the Institute of Hydrobiology and Ecology Mirgaliy Baymukanov, the population of Caspian seals is declining under the pressure of anthropogenic factors. Read an article about this on Hola.kz, which we give in full.

The Caspian seal is the only mammal that lives in the waters of the Caspian Sea. Over the past hundred years, the number of Caspian seals has decreased tenfold, and over the past 20 years – four times more. If earlier their population was influenced by fishing in order to get valuable fur or fat, today seals die, entangled in fishing nets, from sea pollution and diseases. In 2008, the Caspian seal was included in the list of the International Union for Conservation of Nature as an endangered species, in 2020 – in the Red Book of Kazakhstan. HOLA News talks about the threat of the Caspian seal’s disappearance and what Kazakhstan is doing to preserve this species.

How many seals are left in the Caspian Sea

The Caspian seal (Pusa caspica) is endemic to the Caspian Sea. This means that it lives only in the Caspian Sea and nowhere else in the world. Seals are called “itbalyk” in Kazakh, literally – “dog-fish”, because in appearance and character it resembles a dog. Seals are born in the Northern Caspian Sea, in the Kazakh part of the sea, in the summer the mammals migrate to the south of the sea, then return to the north to bring offspring on the ice floes.

Seals are semi-aquatic animals, they breed, feed their young and molt on the ice. After breeding, they live on sand-shell islands and shalygah (underwater shallow bank), forming rookeries. The female’s pregnancy lasts about 11 months, giving birth to one puppy. The seal is able to dive to a depth of 80 meters to get food. It feeds on fish, mainly sprat.

According to the Ministry of Ecology, Geology and Natural Resources, today the population is estimated from 100 to 300 thousand individuals.

“Since 2020, Kazakh and Russian scientists have been conducting joint studies to assess the number of Caspian seals in the Northern Caspian Sea within the framework of the five-year program. As part of these studies, air flights are carried out to assess the number of seals, satellite tagging of individuals, and the study of the causes of death of seals. Updated data are expected based on the results of joint Kazakh-Russian studies, ” the ministry said in a response to HOLA News.

Mirgaliy Baymukanov, Director of the Institute of Hydrobiology and Ecology, has been studying Caspian seals for more than 20 years. Since 2005, he has been the head of the Kazakhstan group of Caspian seal researchers. In his opinion, to find out the total number of mammals, the efforts of all the Caspian states are necessary, since the seal is a transboundary species. The fact that seals are semi – aquatic animals also makes it difficult to count.

He notes that there are three methods of counting seals: during breeding on the ice, during periods of their accumulation on rookeries in the spring and autumn periods, and from ships during sea feeding (fattening) of animals.

“Each of the methods gives a certain picture of the distribution of the species across the sea and the dynamics of the population in different periods of the animals’ life. But the most informative are the methods that make it possible to calculate the number during winter, spring and autumn accumulations. These records are conducted from the air – from planes and drones. In the spring and autumn periods, photography and video shooting are carried out over the clusters and then the seals are counted based on the images obtained. For winter accounting, thermal imagers are also used, while heat and video shooting is carried out constantly. In recent years, these two methods have been used in the Kazakh part of the sea, ” says Mirgaliy Baymukanov.

According to the Ministry of Ecology, in recent years, studies funded from the national budget have been conducted to assess the number, distribution and identification of various factors that negatively affect the state of the Caspian seal population. For example, for the study planned for 2021, according to the government decree, 156 individuals will be withdrawn from the islands of Durnev and Repair shalygi (Aktoty) Mangistau and Atyrau regions. The ministry explained that it is planned to capture seals to study the size, age, and sex structure of the population, and to monitor them with satellite tags in order to track migrations and determine the main and most valuable habitats.

“It should be noted that the research will be carried out in vivo and all captured seals will be released into their natural habitat. The procedure for obtaining the necessary data is no more than 20-30 minutes. This data will be used to clarify the structure of the population of a rare species and migration routes in order to develop measures to restrict navigation, economic activity, as well as to determine the boundaries, if necessary, to create a specially protected natural area,” the ministry said in a response to HOLA News.

Since 2015, state-commissioned research has been conducted by employees of the Institute of Hydrobiology and Ecology and the Research and Production Center for Fisheries.

“A method for estimating the number and determining the size structure of seals in rookeries based on photos from multicopters has been developed and implemented. It is these studies that have shown that there is a reduction in seal habitats due to anthropogenic factors of concern – shipping, hunting, fishing, and wild tourism. And the seals are concentrated in the north-eastern part of the Caspian Sea, ” said Baimukanov, director of the Institute of Hydrobiology and Ecology.

In his opinion, the reason for the reduction of seal sites – on the islands of Kendirli and Tyulenyi, South-West shalygi-is the activity of people near these rookeries and on rookeries.

“The constant presence of people on and near the islands, shipping and fishing scares the seals away, they stop lying on them. A striking example is the situation on the Kendirli rookery: if in 2009 up to 700 seals were registered here, in 2016 – up to 450, now there are no seals on the islets in the Bay of Kendirli. And we need to do everything to return the seals to their original habitats, and this will serve as an impetus to increase their number, ” Baymukanov believes.

The scientist notes that on the basis of these studies, it is recommended to create a specially protected natural area in the form of a state nature reserve for the preservation of the main habitats of seals, the rehabilitation of sick and injured seals.

The Ministry of Ecology said that together with the Ministry of Ecology of Russia they plan to sign a joint action plan for the conservation of the Caspian seal population.

AselleTasmagambetova, the founder of the Central Asian Institute for Environmental Research (CAIEI), who is conducting an independent study, also speaks about the negative impact of the anthropogenic factor on seals. The eldest daughter of the famous Kazakh politician Imangali Tasmagambetova says that this topic has long interested her. One of the formations she received is “ecology and nature management”. She notes that their seal rescue activities began in 2009. After reviewing the legislative framework and research, the CAIEI in 2016 approved a five-year plan to study the Caspian seal and its habitat.

“We have approached this issue systematically, so that there is an objective picture. Many of the studies commissioned by the oil companies were classified. After talking with experts, our team came to the conclusion that within five years it is necessary to organize its own independent scientific expedition in order to better understand the situation and create its own database. The first expedition was held in February 2017 with the involvement of foreign specialists from Canada and France. It was held during this period of the year, because the winter expedition is very important, because the so-called “maternity hospital of seals” is located in the Northern Caspian Sea in Kazakhstan. They breed in February, and ice is critical for them. Therefore, we must take the responsibility that lies with us more seriously. After all, the Kazakh part is responsible for the key process in the conservation of the Caspian seal population,” she said.

The expedition consisted of various specialists: chemists took water samples, biologists-swabs from the nose, throat, throat of animals, wool samples, weighed seals, measured height, volume, veterinarians treated seals. During the first expedition, 10 water samples were collected, each sample was carried out in two repetitions: one for the Kazakh laboratory in Almaty and one for the French independent laboratory. Water samples were analyzed for the content of 13 heavy metals, in all water samples the content of such a chemical element as vanadium exceeded the maximum permissible concentration by 1.5-7.4 times, beryllium-by 140-445 times, antimony-by 13.2-17.2 times.

When analyzing a nasal smear from Caspian seals using PCR, the genetic material of the parainfluenza virus type 1 was found in one sample, and the genetic material of the coronavirus was also found in another sample.

The subsequent expedition involved Russian specialists from the Alexey Severtsov Institute of Ecology and Evolution. The scientists conducted a microbiological analysis, and the resulting biomaterial was examined in two Russian laboratories.

What do seals die from?

The Ministry of Ecology, Geology and Natural Resources considers unfavorable climatic factors, reduced immunity and the development of various diseases, fishing nets, shipping and other anthropogenic factors to be the main threats to Caspian seals.

Caspian seal population is in danger: Aselle Tasmagambetova and Mirgaliy Baymukanov

“The decline in the number of seals from 1 million to 100 thousand individuals over two centuries was primarily influenced by fishing, which was intensively carried out until the 70s of the last century. Various diseases, such as chronic toxicosis and the carnivorous plague virus, also contributed to the decline in the population. All these negative factors, acting in a complex way, led to a decrease in the total number of the species, ” the ministry said in its response.

According to the director of the Institute of Hydrobiology and Ecology Mirgali Baymukanov, the most negative impact on the condition of the species in the past was the intensive fishing that began in the Northern Caspian Sea in the middle of the XVIII century. By the end of the 20th century, this led to a significant decline in numbers to the point that the fishery itself became economically unprofitable.

“The situation has also been aggravated by the pollution of the sea from the development of industry and the use of pesticides and fertilizers in agriculture, since the Caspian Sea is a drainless reservoir and all the pollution in the basin drains and eventually accumulates in the sea. Toxic environment negatively affects the reproductive functions of animals, reduces their immunity. This contributes to the development of various diseases. So, already in the second half of the twentieth century, it was found out that more than half of female seals of reproductive age can not reproduce offspring, in the late twentieth – early twenty-first century, there was a mass death of seals from dog distemper, estimated in the tens of thousands, ” said Baimukanov.

He talks about the negative impact of worrying seals in feeding areas, spring and autumn deposits, and breeding grounds.

“Currently, there is no official fishing for seals, except for poaching, the size of which, according to some scientists, is still very significant. Thousands of seals also die in fishing nets, becoming entangled in them. There is a destruction of seal habitats as a result of shipping in the winter – after all, seals breed on the ice and it is during this period that they are very vulnerable. And even if the seals do not fall under the icebreakers, the weaning of puppies from their mothers is mostly fatal for newborns. Seals are also vulnerable in rookeries, where they gather in the spring for molting and in the autumn for rest, migrating north to breed. But here they are startled by fishermen, vacationers, hunters. So, for example, before our eyes, as a result of this negative impact, the rookery in Kendirli Bay loses its significance. Of course, the pollution of the sea does not decrease and poses a serious threat to the survival of the species,” said Baimukanov.

It should be noted that over the past 25 years, the mass death of seals has been repeatedly observed. For example, in 2000, more than 30 thousand individuals were found on the entire coast of the Caspian Sea, in Kazakhstan-more than 10 thousand seals. Then the cause of their death was called chronic toxicosis, tests showed that the carcasses contained pesticides, products of crude oil, fuel oil and naval fuel oil. In 2007, about a thousand dead seals were found in the area of the Kalamkas oil field, the causes of death were called infection with the carnivore plague virus and adverse weather conditions. In 2009, more than 350 carcasses of dead seals were found in the Tupkaragan region. Dead seals have also been found on the coasts of other countries: in December 2020, more than 300 dead seals were found in Dagestan. Then scientists associated the death of animals with a natural factor and the release of natural methane. In 2021, hundreds of dead seals were found on the islands of the Turkmen part of the sea.

According to the ministry, from 2017 to 2021, 296 carcasses of dead seals were found in the Kazakh part of the Caspian Sea, including: in 2017-248, in 2018, the death of seals was not recorded, in 2019 – two, in 2020 – 45. Since the beginning of this year, one case of the death of a seal has been recorded.

The Ministry explained that when seal carcasses are found, specialists of the territorial fisheries inspectorate, together with representatives of the Department of Natural Resources and Regulation, the Department of Ecology, the environmental police, the veterinary Service, as well as scientific organizations, go to the places. Samples of pathological material, soil and water are taken. The Ministry of Ecology notes that in many cases it is not possible to take samples of samples due to the strong decomposition of the carcasses of the dead individuals, and the different degree of decomposition indicates their death in different periods.

“Surveys show that the mortality of a certain part of the seals can be attributed to natural, due to unfavorable winter conditions and various diseases. At the same time, it is impossible to exclude the death of seals as a result of winter shipping and not only as a result of falling under passing ships, but also in the future due to the weaning of puppies from their mothers,” the ministry noted.

Scientist Baymukanov says that an annual analysis of mortality is carried out, the places of the greatest mortality of seals are determined, samples are taken, measurements are made.

“In the Kazakh part of the sea, the largest number of dead seals are taken to the western coast of the Tupkaragan peninsula. These are the seals that are brought by the winds blowing from the west from all over the Northern Caspian Sea. Over the past five years, the largest removal was observed in 2017, when the number of dead seals was about 400, ” he said.

According to him, the causes of mortality can be different-from all the risk factors listed earlier, and in general are determined by both natural and anthropogenic factors:

“The assessment of the age of the seal corpses showed that among the dead seals there are no old individuals-older than 30 years. Although the maximum life age of Caspian seals is about 50 years. This is a very disturbing sign – if individuals die before reaching their natural maximum life expectancy. This trend may just lead to the extinction of the species.”

Why do they catch seals

Last year, a video spread on the Internet of a group of people throwing rocks at seals in Mangystau. This shocked the people of Kazakhstan, and a pre-trial investigation was launched into the fact of animal cruelty. President Tokayev also responded to the incident, calling the incident “savagery” and calling on the Minister of Education to engage in environmental education of schoolchildren. However, except for two cases of attacks on seals, the ministry could not report the exact number of injured seals. The Ministry of Ecology also noted that in 2020-2021, four individuals of injured seals were delivered to the center for the study and rehabilitation of the Caspian seal.

Seal oil is advertised as a cure for all diseases. But then why do the seals themselves get sick?

“Since 2006, Kazakhstan has not approved a limit on the commercial withdrawal of the Caspian seal and therefore does not produce, produce and sell products from it. At the same time, there were separate publications in the media about hunting seals in order to obtain subcutaneous fat by processing artisanal methods for medicinal purposes. However, in recent years, the facts of poaching have not been registered, ” the ministry added.

According to scientists, poachers extract seals for the sale of derivatives (fat, skin). The Internet is full of materials about the benefits of “seal fat”, in the markets it is sold as a miracle cure that can cure tuberculosis, ulcers, anemia, asthma, bronchitis, even coronavirus. This prompted the Central Asian Institute for Environmental Research to conduct laboratory studies. In April 2021, the institute denied the beneficial properties of seal fat purchased in the Aktau markets. Scientists have said that it poses a danger to human health. In the composition of fat, an increased concentration of heavy metals, such as cadmium, lead, and arsenic, which can cause diseases of the kidneys and liver, nervous, immune, endocrine, and reproductive systems, was found.

What will happen to the seals if sea levels continue to fall

The population of seals is also affected by the regression of the Northern Caspian Sea, climate change, and the reduction of ice fields, which leads to the loss of autumn and spring rookeries.

Last year, the Iranian Center for the Study of the Caspian Sea reported that the water level in 2019 reached the lowest level in the last 30 years. According to pessimistic forecasts of recent studies, due to a decrease in water levels and rising temperatures in the region, the Caspian Sea will lose up to 18 meters of depth by the end of the century. According to this scenario, by 2080, about a quarter (23%) of the current area of the Caspian Sea will completely dry up, and a desert may form in its place. In this scenario, seals are at risk, as the cubs are born on the ice sheets of the Northern Caspian Sea.

But some scientists disagree with this prediction. In their opinion, the retreat of water is part of a natural fluctuation, that is, the rise and fall of the Caspian Sea level is a recurring process.

According to the Committee for Environmental Regulation and Control, on the northern islands of the Komsomolets Bay (Durnev Islands) during the molting of animals in 2009, 2011, the number reached 20-30 thousand individuals, in subsequent years of monitoring – in 2015-2017, their number was significantly less. Accumulations were found on the islands of Prorva and Repair Shalygi. Spring deposits on the Kendirli Islands have been few in recent years. Autumn deposits were recorded until the fall of 2017, in the fall of 2018 and 2019, no seals were recorded on the islands. The committee notes that the data indicate that the occurrence sites in connection with the regression are shifting deep into the north-eastern part of the Caspian Sea to the newly formed islands.

“The Caspian Sea is a phenomenal sea, which characterizes the variability of the level. The so-called transgressions-raising and regressions – lowering of the level replace each other periodically. Sea level fluctuations can reach several meters, reaching tens and even hundreds of meters in a short geologically speaking time. At the present time, the sea is at the stage of regression, i.e., lowering the level. This is generally a natural process. So, in the last century, there was a short-term drop in the level – from 1930 to 1977, and then a rise that lasted until 1995. After that, the level steadily began to decline again, ” said Mirgaliy Baymukanov, director of the Institute of Hydrobiology and Ecology.

According to him, the evolution of the Caspian seal took place in these conditions, and the species has adapted to these changes. He believes that ” the very fluctuation of the level does not pose a threat to the survival of seals, seals for rookeries are actively developing new islands.”

How does the first seal rehabilitation center in Kazakhstan function?

“The seal is an indicator of the entire ecosystem of the Caspian Sea. You can track many indicators based on the condition of this animal, and the situation changes every year. During the years of independence, funds were allocated for the study of the seal, but, unfortunately, there was no specialized center, specialists who can quickly respond to an emergency situation. The issue with specialists is particularly acute. There is no ichthyologist, biologist, or veterinarian on the ground, ” says Aselle Tasmagambetova.
Photo from the center for the protection and rehabilitation of seals.

Caspian seal population is in danger: Aselle Tasmagambetova and Mirgaliy Baymukanov

Aselle Tasmagambetova considers it a “huge omission” that not a single practitioner, a veterinarian, has yet been trained:

“In 2019, an Iranian specialist was invited to the summer expedition, who spoke about the Seal Rehabilitation Center in Iran. After these expeditions, we realized that we urgently need to open a Center for the Study and Rehabilitation of Seals in Aktau. It took six months to find a place, specialists, and funds. We did all this at our own expense. A lot of work has been done on writing treatment protocols and developing instructions. The most difficult thing was to find specialists. Yes, there were and still are certain problems, but we are solving them, and today we have all the necessary information, constantly being in touch with colleagues from other countries.”

Phone number of the Seal Rehabilitation Center
+7 775 101 1122

On August 6, 2019, the first Center for the Study and Rehabilitation of the Caspian Seal in Kazakhstan was opened in Aktau. It was created at the initiative of the Central Asian Institute for Environmental Research in cooperation with the Sabi Charitable Foundation (it is also headed by Aselle Tasmagambetova). The center has a primary examination room, a bathroom, an aviary, a quarantine room, a feed room, two laboratory rooms, a doctor’s room on duty, and a room for visitors. Today, the center has everything you need to provide first aid: drugs, a laminar flow box for transporting samples at minus 80-100 degrees, treatment protocols for 70 different diseases, equipment (for taking tests, conducting chemical analysis of water, a screening analyzer, a sterilizer, a water titrator, a pH meter, a heavy metal analyzer). The call center is open around the clock.

According to the director of the center, Adylkhan Tovasarov, during its existence, the center received five seals, three of which died. Specialists cured two seals and released them to the Caspian Sea. He notes that the seals arrive exhausted, with complex wounds, cuts from fishing nets, internal injuries.

“If a person sees an injured seal, they need to call the center. Before the arrival of the veterinarians, it is recommended not to touch the animal, only to wait. If the animal is immobilized, make sure that the dogs do not bite it, do not drag it. Many people think that since the seal lives in the water, it should be lowered into the water. But the seal in this state can not be lowered into the water, it is strictly forbidden to touch the animal, ” he explains.

The procedure for the rehabilitation of a seal is a rather complex process, which has many nuances. The first day of the seal is kept at 12-16 degrees, in a dry bath, the food, water and salt balance is put in order, and rehydration is prescribed. When it begins to move, the bath is filled with water within 5 centimeters, gradually increasing. The animals are fed every four hours. In the first days, the seal is fed through a tube with crushed herring, since it has a very high fat content, then with sprat.

Caspian seal population is in danger: Aselle Tasmagambetova and Mirgaliy Baymukanov

“After recovery, we give live fish, look at the reaction of the seal, watch how it hunts. Some people do not take fish for food, they play with it. Closer to the release, we wean the seal from people. At the last stage, we lower it into the bath so that it does not see people,” he added.

Adylkhan Tovasarov says that the condition of the last seal that was released by the center was very difficult.

“If you tell us about the last seal that was found in Bautino on the shore at the end of March this year. He weighed just over four kilograms. According to eyewitnesses, the animal lay there for two days. When we arrived, the seal was immobilized, with a high temperature, barely opened his eyes and barely breathed. We were afraid that he would carry the road to Aktau. A day later, he came to his senses. After examining, they prescribed treatment. The weight gain took two weeks. By the time of independent life, the weight of the seal was already 15.5 kilograms, ” says Adylkhan Tovasarov.

Currently, the Center for the Study and Rehabilitation of the Caspian Seal in Aktau can simultaneously undergo rehabilitation of up to 20 seals. Four people work to take out one seal: two-in the night shift, two – in the day shift.

Tovasarov shared his ideas about opening additional mobile points for rapid response:

“It is often very difficult to transport seals. They are sometimes exhausted, and we are afraid that the animals will not survive transportation. After such cases, there was an idea to create a mobile emergency veterinary care. One machine should be equipped with the necessary equipment and screening devices, and the second one should be made for the staff. Earlier, in the direction of Turkmenistan, there was a rookery on Kendirli, where seals periodically appear. There are also rookeries in Komsomolets Bay, Durnev Island. Therefore, we want to put two points on the shore closer to the specified places, while the main center will be based in Aktau. It is also necessary to re-equip the center, in case of a mass pestilence of seals. There are no special laboratories in Aktau, but we have the necessary facilities for conducting tests, PCR, ultrasound, there are special boxes for transporting tests and biomaterials.”

He notes that basic research is being conducted to understand how to move forward. When a species is on the verge of extinction, we can’t just talk about research, we need to respond quickly.

 

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