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Life Arts    H4'ed 7/21/09

Exclusive Interview with Francois Hugo, Founder, Seal Alert-SA

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South African seal rescuer Francois Hugo can shut down Namibia's sealing industry for good. All he needs is $14 million to buy it out

The Namibian Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources announced the new seal harvesting season, which officially began on July 1 and ends on November 15, with a quota of 91,000 seals -- 85,000 pups and 6,000 bulls.

But so far, no Namibian Cape fur seals have been killed.

The seal hunt has ostensibly been put on hold as negotiations are being held to potentially sell off the Namibian sealing industry to Hugo's seal rescue organization Seal Alert-SA. Hugo is now in a race to raise the $14 million to buy out the sealing business of Hatem Yavuz, the last remaining purchaser of seal skins from Namibia.

Yavuz approached Hugo in late June, days before the start of the seal cull, with a proposal to sell his business. This was after Seal Alert-SA and anti-fur NGOs mounted a campaign exposing Yavuz's involvement in the fur trade of this endangered seal species. The main target of the hunt are nursing baby seals, which are desired for their fur. Older male bulls are also killed to supply the Asian markets with seal penis, considered an aphrodisiac.

One seal pup skin from Namibia costs $7. A standard individual donation to an anti-sealing campaign is $25. It costs $100 to adopt a seal at one of the 79 seal rescue centers worldwide. It costs Hugo about $1,250 to raise a rescued seal pup for one year. The deal on Hugo's table equates to buying the rights at $14 per each of the 1 million seals from being killed in Namibia for the next 10 years. Looking at the math alone, this is an extremely worthwhile deal.

In 1972, the first seal pup census was taken in Namibia. At the time, the nation was home to 13 seal colonies. Four of these colonies remain on 11 islands off the coast of Namibia and have recently received official protection. Overall, Cape fur seals are extinct in 98% of their original and preferred habitat -- offshore islands. However since 1990, the Namibian government has given the sealing industry quotas for annual seal hunts of two colonies which exist unnaturally on mainland Namibia. Three years ago, the government increased the seal pup quota by 30%, -- from 65,000 to 85,000. Hugo knew that this figure would result in every pup being killed in both mainland colonies. That is when he started a campaign against the government's policy.

The government has granted the right for the sealing industry to kill one million seals until 2019. The annual quota is determined by scientific assessments of the annual seal population, which should under sustainable-use policies not exceed 30% of pups born. The current quota exceeds the surviving pups by July 1. The deal on the table will include selling the right to kill the one million seals.

In July of 2007, Hugo was invited to speak with the Namibian prime minister Nahas Angula, who connected him with officials in the mining, fishing and tourism industries in order to resolve the issue. But there were disputes over how data was being presented by the government scientists. In the end, the talks were stalled by the government. That led to Hugo getting Namibia's two biggest tourism partners -- the Netherlands and Germany -- to ban seal products. Hugo's efforts to get Namibia's seals included in the recent EU ban were also successful. But Namibia is looking to Asia and Turkey as its main markets.

Several weeks ago, Hugo discovered the name of Namibia's last buyer for seal skins. It was Hatem Yavuz, who is based in Australia. Thousands of activist emails flooded Yavuz, who then made an offer to sell his interests in Namibia. This sale would amount to buying out the entire Namibian seal industry.

Though the Namibian sealing season has officially begun and sealers are currently allowed to start killing seals, Hugo has stated that all the parties involved in the talks are aware that if one seal is killed, he will call off the deal.

13.7 Billion Years asked Francois Hugo about the current buyout deal that could stop the annual slaughter of Namibia's endangered Cape fur seals.

13.7: What is the current situation regarding the possible sale of the Namibian sealing industry to Seal Alert-SA?

Hugo: The two-week private business agreement to halt the seal cull passes on July 15. Thereafter it's a question of putting the cash on the table. Buyer and seller are talking almost daily.

13.7: How close are you to raising the $14 million to buy out Yavuz?

Hugo: Seal Alert-SA is a private seal protection and rescue organization. We are therefore not a public fundraising NGO. I have no staff or mailing lists or databases full of supporters and membership details. Therefore I have had to appeal to the media and other anti-seal groups to ask their members to support. This takes time. Pledges have come in from $14 to $200,000, but to date not even 10% to secure the buyout has been achieved. It needs greater media and NGO awareness and support.

13.7: What are the biggest roadblocks to this deal?

Hugo: The biggest roadblocks are the myths being uttered by the anti-seal hunt groups as a way out of supporting the buyout with their accumulated funds -- running into billions of dollars -- derived from decades of anti-seal hunt campaigns.

13.7: According to the Atlantic Canadian Anti-Sealing Coalition, the rights to kill seals in Namibia are granted to only three companies: Cape Cross Seals, Sea Lion Products and Namibia Venison and Marine Exporters. Is that correct? And Yavuz is their only buyer of skins?

Hugo: That is correct, but it is basically two concession holders for the two seal colonies.

13.7: If Seal Alert-SA is able to purchase Yavuz's stake in the Namibian sealing industry, will other sealing operations continue?

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Reynard Loki is a New York-based artist, writer and editor. He is the environment and food editor at AlterNet.org, a progressive news website. He is also the co-founder of MomenTech, a New York-based experimental production studio whose projects (more...)

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