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Seal 'Whisperer' Fights To Keep On Helping
by Patricia Collier

Francois Hugo has been rescuing and rehabilitating seals in South Africa for five years, but officials are now threatening him with jail if he continues.

In an inflatable boat, Hugo patrols daily the bay around Cape Town, searching for seals in trouble. They may need food, medical care or assistance getting untangled from fishing nets or other hazards.

While the Cape Town community supports Hugo's activities, South Africa's Marine and Coastal Management (MCM) has made things hard for the seal rescuer by passing a new law making it illegal to feed seals.

Starvation is an all-too-common problem among the seals. Hugo spends his own money to buy food for the marine animals. He feeds them from his boat or from a platform in the bay.

After several hearings on the matter, Hugo has been denied a permit that would exclude his seal rescue operation from the new law. He has actually been charged with breaking the law; if he is caught again feeding the seals, he could face one or two years in prison.

Hugo has now started a campaign to raise funds for his legal campaign to overturn the ruling, a task which promises to be daunting.

Seals were once abundant in South Africa, but now, 11 out of the country's 20 seal islands have no seal populations.

Seals are being hunted for their fur and body parts, and dying from starvation, from man-made pollution and from entanglement in fishing nets.

Furthermore, the MCM is offering South African fishermen a R200 (US $26) bounty for each scientific tag collected from seals, and they want the seals brought in dead.

The seals have been tagged for the past 30 years. There are about 80,000 tags to be recovered. The government intends to spend about R16 Million (US $2.1 Million) to recover the dead seals, but will offer little to rehabilitate the sick, starving or injured.

All of this is taking place despite South Africa's own Seal Protection act of 1973.

"Seals only beach themselves after a long downward spiral, usually caused by lack of food due to illness or injury," Hugo said.

His group, called "Seal Alert SA", locates distressed seals in the harbor before they beach themselves and rehabilitates them in the wild by supplying much needed nourishment.

"Once seals regain their strength, they naturally return to the sea," Hugo said. "Without Seal Alert SA fighting for them everyday, their future looks uncertain indeed."

Captain Paul Watson, founder and president of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, said, "Sea Shepherd is the first proud sponsor of Seal Alert SA and is in full support of Francois Hugo and his fight to save South Africa's seals."

Sea Shepherd is demanding the SA government rescind its new regulation against helping distressed seals, and/or provide a permit to Hugo, so he can continue to assist the seals without being harassed or threatened with prison.

Individuals interested in helping Hugo to continue his work can write to Mr. Hurst Kleinschmidt of South African Marine and Coastal Management (email: [email protected] or [email protected]), or to Mr. Vallie Moosa of the South African Government Office (email: [email protected]).

Francois Hugo can be contacted directly at [email protected].

Seal Alert SA

Sea Shepherd
Seal Saver Faces Prison Time for Helping Seals
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