Worldwide biodiversity is in decline and conservation success stories are comparatively rare (Butchart et al., Reference Butchart, Walpole, Collen, Van Strien, Scharlemann and Almond2010). However, although conservation successes do occur (e.g. Halley & Rosell, Reference Halley and Rosell2002; Balmford, Reference Balmford2017; Knowlton, Reference Knowlton2019), highlighting the importance of conservation action, continued monitoring is required. Whilst species may return to areas where they were previously extirpated, many populations remain below historical abundance levels and do not reach the numbers necessary to secure long-term survival (Deinet et al., Reference Deinet, Ieronymidou, McRae, Burfield, Foppen, Collen and Böhm2013). In such cases continued conservation actions are necessary to facilitate population recovery.
The Mediterranean monk seal Monachus monachus is categorized as Endangered on the IUCN Red List, with < 700 individuals remaining (Karamanlidis & Dendrinos, Reference Karamanlidis and Dendrinos2015). The species is, however, showing some signs of recovery. The population has increased in its principal range and extralimital sightings have been recorded throughout the eastern Mediterranean (Karamanlidis et al., Reference Karamanlidis, Dendrinos, Fernández de Larrinoa, Gücü, Johnson, Kiraç and Pires2016a). This increase in abundance resulted in a recategorization from Critically Endangered to Endangered in 2015 (Karamanlidis & Dendrinos, Reference Karamanlidis and Dendrinos2015).
Monk seals were first mentioned as part of the native fauna of Cyprus in 1959 (Davidson, Reference Davidson1959), and the species appears to have steadily declined since then (Hadjichristophorou & Demetropoulos, Reference Hadjichristophorou and Demetropoulos1994); the last previously reported reproductive activity was recorded during 1955–1958. However, during 1972–2006, 46 sightings of subadult and adult seals were recorded. Field surveys in 1997 and in 2005–2006 verified the existence of suitable habitat for the species and recorded its occasional presence, but failed to document any reproductive activity (Dendrinos & Demetropoulos, Reference Dendrinos and Demetropoulos2000; Demetropoulos et al., Reference Demetropoulos, Hadjichristophorou, Demetropoulos and Cebrian2006; Demetropoulos, Reference Demetropoulos2011), leading to the conclusion that only a small number of seals survived (Demetropoulos, Reference Demetropoulos2011) or that the species was effectively extinct in Cyprus (Aguilar & Lowry, Reference Aguilar and Lowry2008). Following the report of a dead pup in 2009 (Demetropoulos, Reference Demetropoulos2011) a study was initiated to evaluate the status of the Mediterranean monk seal in Cyprus and to identify priority conservation actions.
During 2009–2018 we evaluated the status of the Mediterranean monk seal in Cyprus (i.e. the coastline under the effective control of the Government of the Republic of Cyprus) following the monitoring framework used for the monk seal in Greece (MOm, 2007). This comprised (1) the establishment of a national information network to collect information on monk seal sightings reported by the general public (Adamantopoulou et al., Reference Adamantopoulou, Androukaki and Kotomatas1999), (2) a coastline survey that evaluated potentially suitable seal habitat based on pre-defined criteria (Dendrinos et al., Reference Dendrinos, Karamanlidis, Kotomatas, Legakis and Tounta2007), and (3) surveys that recorded terrestrial habitat use, identified individuals and recorded annual pup production through visual observations and the use of camera traps. Photo-identification used standard techniques (Forcada & Aguilar, Reference Forcada and Aguilar2000) and morphological criteria for monk seals (Samaranch & González, Reference Samaranch and González2000).
The information network recorded 361 monk seal sightings (Fig. 1), most of which were in three areas in the north-west and south: Pafos–Akamas (166 sightings), Limassol (118 sightings), and Kavo Greko–Kavo Pyla (68 sightings; Fig. 2a). The majority of sightings (95%) were of juvenile and adult individuals, but 18 sightings of new-born pups were also reported. Some of these sightings may refer to the same individuals. No negative human–seal interactions were recorded.
In the survey of 370 km of coastline, 17 suitable monk seal shelters were identified (Fig. 2b), seven of which were suitable for pupping and 10 suitable only for resting. We visited the shelters a total of 185 times. On 78 occasions, we confirmed seal presence through direct observations or indirect evidence (e.g. scats, tracks). Twenty-three camera traps, installed at 13 of the shelters, covered a total of 4,120 trap days and recorded 342,000 images. A combination of visual observations, digital images and sightings reported by the general public led to the identification of 14 individual seals, including five new-born pups (one born in 2011, two in 2015 and one each in 2017 and 2018).
There is a long history of exploitation of, and negative interactions with, the Mediterranean monk seal, leading to the gradual disappearance of the species from most of its former range (Karamanlidis et al., Reference Karamanlidis, Dendrinos, Fernández de Larrinoa, Gücü, Johnson, Kiraç and Pires2016a). Our findings, together with observations from northern Cyprus (Gücü et al., Reference Gücü, Ok and Sakinan2009), indicate that until 2009 the species was on the brink of extinction on the island (Aguilar & Lowry, Reference Aguilar and Lowry2008). Since the verified birth of a monk seal in Cyprus in 2009, sightings of the species have increased. Since 2015 births have been recorded almost annually, and pupping was recorded in 2018 in northern Cyprus (Taksent Nature Park, 2019). The presence of suitable habitat on the island (including in the north; Gücü et al., Reference Gücü, Ok and Sakinan2009), the increasing number of sightings and the recent pupping events indicate there is now a resident, reproducing Mediterranean monk seal population in the country. This is the first documented re-establishment of a Mediterranean monk seal population following its near eradication. We are unable to determine whether this recovery is attributable to the few animals that potentially survived on the island or is the result of immigration from populations in the Cilician Basin (Gücü et al., Reference Gücü, Gücü and Orek2004) or Greece. In support of the latter, a pup born in 2015 shared the same haplotype as the monk seal population of the Cyclades Islands of Greece (MOm & DFMR, unpubl. data), the source of other extralimital sightings (Karamanlidis et al., Reference Karamanlidis, Gaughran, Aguilar, Dendrinos, Huber and Pires2016b).
Based on the current status of the Mediterranean monk seal in Cyprus we identify the following priority conservation actions for the species: (1) All habitat suitable for the Mediterranean monk seal in Cyprus (i.e. terrestrial and marine) should be effectively protected from tourism and development. (2) Human activity around pupping sites should be restricted by creation of 200 m protection zones. (3) A permanent monitoring plan should be established for the Mediterranean monk seal in Cyprus, including further development of the national information network, in combination with a rescue and rehabilitation plan for sick or injured seals and the involvement of the relevant public authorities and appropriate stakeholders. (4) An awareness campaign focusing on the general public and on fishers should be developed, to help raise awareness of the status of, and threats to, the monk seal.
These actions are consistent with the National Action Plan for the conservation of the species (Demetropoulos, Reference Demetropoulos2011). However, given the new information now available, the National Action Plan requires updating, to safeguard the future of the Mediterranean monk seal in Cyprus.
We thank M. Hadjichristoforou and A. Demetropoulos for their assistance in establishing this project, and two anonymous reviewers for their critiques. This research received no specific grant from any funding agency, or commercial or not-for-profit sectors.
Study design: all authors; fieldwork: HN, MM, SM; data analysis: HN, MM, SM, AAK; writing: all authors.
Conflicts of interest
This research abided by the Oryx guidelines on ethical standards.