Wildlife and environment
Seal Pup
© RIA Novosti. Aleksandr Liskin

White and defenseless

March 15 is International Seal Pup Protection Day. Back in the late 20th century, hunters killed huge numbers of seal pups for their white fur. Arctic.ru published an article on seal pups for Rossiya Segodnya's special project Year of the Environment in Russia.

March 15 is the approximate date that seal pups are born. The International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) held a nationwide public awareness event — Don't Beat the Defenseless — in Russia on this day in 2009. The event was a successful conclusion to the campaign IFAW had been carrying out for many years to end commercial hunting of the Greenland harp seal.

Just days later, on March 18, 2009, Russia's Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment introduced a complete ban on hunting seals less than a year old. Russia was one of the first countries to completely ban seal hunting and the import of seal pelts.

Seals breed on drifting ice floes. During their first days of life, the seal pups cannot swim and escape hunters by taking to the water, as adult seals do. The female seals spend practically the whole time with their pups during this period. IFAW specialist Yelena Zharkova said that hunting takes place precisely at this time, when the animals are most defenseless.  

Some specialists think that hunting is essential to keep the seal population under control. Seals' main food source is fish, and so, the theory goes, the more seals, the less fish.

"It's a myth that the seals have eaten all the fish," Zharkova said. "The fishing trawlers are primarily responsible."

Humans are not the only threat seal pups face. Today's rapid climate change endangers them too, according to Zharkova, who said that the solid ice that is their birthplace and "nursery" is hard to find now, and many seal pups die as a result. The various events, demonstrations and protests against killing seals that take place on March 15 in Russia have done a lot to change people's attitude toward these animals. 

Previously, for example, icebreakers would set their course and keep to it without deviation. If ice floes used by the seals happened to be in their way, they would simply go straight over them. Now though, before planning their route, they receive information from IFAW on where the seals' breeding grounds are located, and they can plan their routes accordingly.

Five interesting facts about seal pups:

— Newborn seal pups are greenish and only turn white a few days later.

— Their fur gains its dazzling white shade only a few days after birth. When they are born, their fur is greenish because of amniotic fluid. Their white fur is actually transparent. Like polar bears, their fur consists of transparent and hollow hairs, making it possible for the sun's rays to penetrate the thick coat of fur and warm the seal pups' black skin.  

— Seal pups tremble constantly. Newborn seals do not yet have a warming layer of fat and so they are in constant motion in order to regulate their body temperature.

— Seal pups' eyes are constantly full of tears, making it look as if they are always crying. In reality, this is the way their eyes stay moist before they are able to swim. Seal pups gain up to three kilograms in weight a day.

— Female seals' milk contains around 50 percent fat, and the seal pups feed several times a day, which explains why they gain weight so rapidly.