The Seal of Extinction
The following is a textual transcription of the C account Caribbean monk seal n the book “The Annihilation of Nature: human extinction of birds and mammals” by Ceballos et al (2015, John Hopkins Press, Baltimore). Available at John Hopkin’s Press and Amazon.
Steller’s sea cow is one of many marine mammals human beings have wiped out. Another is the Caribbean monk seal, a species whose extermination was begun by Christopher Columbus and his crew. The seal was once widespread, living along the shores of the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico, ranging from Texas to the Yucatán Peninsula to Honduras and around islands such as Jamaica and Cuba. It is the only species of seal, so far, to have been wiped out by people.
Columbus discovered this large seal in 1494 during his second voyage to the Americas and immediately ordered it to be hunted. His crew took eight seals and cut them up for oil and meat. That was the beginning of almost five hundred years of relentless persecution. For a long time, particularly in the first two or three centuries, the species was exploited as a food source and for the products that could be made from its remains. Later it was also killed because it was seen as a competitor to fishing operations. The last reliable record for this seal was in 1952, from the Serranilla Bank, a semi-submerged reef in the western Caribbean between Nicaragua and Jamaica. In 1986 an article by Berney LeBouef and colleagues appeared in the journal Marine Mammal Science with the stark title, “The Caribbean Monk Seal is Extinct.” LeBouef and his crew had searched the scientific literature for articles, looked through historical records, and visited every reasonable location where the monk seal might be found. Their article extinguished the last faint hopes that a small remnant population might still exist somewhere.
This was one of only three seals that live in relatively warm waters. This species was endemic to the Caribbean Sea, the Gulf of Mexico and the Western Atlantic Ocean.
It is believed that hunting and human disturbance of their colonies decreased their population until the species become extinct. Sailors hunted them for food but more frequently for their fat, skin and oil. The latter was used as coating for the bottom of boats. On occasions they were also captured to be exhibited in museums and zoos.