x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

$14m deal to end Namibia's seal cull

A South African organisation is prepared to buy out a fur trader and his partners, but doubts remain over who actually owns the sealing quotas.

The Cape Cross Seal Reserve in Namibia is the site of the second-largest seal cull in the world.
The Cape Cross Seal Reserve in Namibia is the site of the second-largest seal cull in the world.

JOHANNESBURG // At Cape Cross on Namibia's Atlantic coast stands a padrao, or stone crucifix, erected by Diego Cao, an early Portuguese navigator, as he sailed south along the African continent in the late 15th century. Despite the early arrival of Europeans at the spot, it remains largely devoid of human habitation, a starkly beautiful landscape of desert running down to the shoreline rocks, pounded by the ocean surf. Today, the cross is a lonely sentinel standing over a population of tens of thousands of Cape fur seals, the largest breeding colony anywhere in the world. Namibia is an extraordinarily desolate country, bigger than Turkey or France but having a population of only two million people. With only a small range of resources - diamonds, gas prospects and fishing - it is unsurprising that the seals, whose colonies run all along a coastline that stretches for more than 1,500km, are seen as a potential source of revenue, as well as a threat to the fishing industry. Every year the country sees the second-biggest seal cull in the world, and the season for it began last week. It is not nearly as well known as the annual hunt in Canada, whose images of white pups being clubbed to death on the ice have outraged animal rights activists. Nonetheless, seal-lovers have regularly protested against the cull, alleging that it is driving the species to extinction - claims denied by the authorities in Windhoek. The culled seals are sold for their fur, oil, which is extracted for use as omega-3, and their meat, which goes into animal feed. Their genitals are sold to China for traditional medicines. Last year, however, there was only one buyer of Namibia's seal pelts - Hatem Yavuz, an Australian businessman of Turkish origin who has a fur-trading operation and makes coats costing up to US$110,000 (Dh405,000). He is in partnership with the cull operators, who own two seal-processing plants in Namibia. This year, Mr Yavuz proposed an innovative solution to the stand-off between animal rights' activists and seal-cullers - they should buy out him and his partners, which would put the future of the cull in doubt. A straight commercial transaction would be a marked departure from the more common tactic of campaigners of trying to have the activities they disapprove of outlawed, and even though many might find the idea of doing business with the enemy abhorrent, for some it is logical. "It makes common sense for a number of reasons for me to buy him out," said François Hugo, of Seal Alert-SA, a South African-based organisation that has held discussions with Mr Yavuz. "It is a very difficult sell to get anti-sealing supporters to give money to a person who has been killing seals," he admitted, but claimed that even so he could raise the necessary funds "within a week" of a deal being agreed. Mr Yavuz is looking for $14.25 million. "I don't mind who I pay. If the buy-out shuts down sealing then I will pay them $14 million. Of course I would, I'm here to protect the species. If I control the industry I can close the industry down." But amid doubts over the ownership of the sealing quotas, which are for the Namibian government to award, the negotiations have come to a standstill amid recriminations and accusations from both parties. As a precondition, Mr Hugo had demanded the cull be postponed during the discussions. While it is not clear whether there has been any killing yet, he said: "There's no more deal any more. It's not going to happen." He acknowledged that sealing was legal in Namibia, but claimed that "people think it's extortion and extortion is a criminal offence". Animal rights activists, whose usual approach in pushing their cause is to launch public relations campaigns and lobby for legislation to protect animals, had a major victory recently by getting the European Union to ban the import of seal products. They have bombarded Mr Yavuz with demands for him to stop buying Namibian seal pelts, with one insisting that he issue a statement condemning the cull - even offering to write it for him. The activist, Nikki Botha, founder of the South African seal-saving initiative, warned Mr Yavuz that "international organisations want to launch campaigns against you and I can't hold them off much longer". Mr Yavuz confirmed that there had been discussions over the buyout, saying the price would have to be enough for him and his partners to retire, but doubted whether Mr Hugo would be able to raise the funds. "He's doing all this seven days before the harvest," said Mr Yavuz, accusing Mr Hugo of using the situation as a fund-raising publicity stunt. "I have got nothing to hide; this is a professional business and industry. People don't like the methods - the way the seals are harvested -but they don't suffer at all. They are gone immediately and we have got a lot of mouths to feed here." He accused the EU of hypocrisy over its seal products ban, pointing out that tens of millions of furs from other species are auctioned each year by traders in two of its member countries - Denmark and Finland - and said his business would not be affected. "The EU is not the world. There are another five billion people around the planet. This business will continue as long as the state of Namibia is going to continue doing it." sberger@thenational.ae