Badem, probably the most famous Mediterranean Monk Seal is back in Turkey after taking herself on a tour of the Island of Rhodes during the winter months.

NGOs, Underwater Research Society (S.A.D) and Mediterranean Seal Research Group (AFAG) have been keeping a careful watch over her after she was found near Didim as an abandoned pup in December 2006.

At that time she was tiny, vulnerable and close to death and although she now weighs in at over 150 kilos she and her kind are high on the red list of critically endangered species. There are fewer than 100 remaining around the coast of Turkey and only 400 or so in total anywhere in the world.

It was therefore with some trepidation that the team led by Cem Orkun Kiraç took the decision to let her choose her own destiny last year.

She has been known to bite people and SAD/AFAG together with local municipalities in the area have been warning people not to approach her. This is due to the fact that she has no fear of humans. Although people saved Badem’s life, humans are generally a seal’s worst enemy.

The problem is that Badem is far too happy to be with humans and likes nothing better than to take a break by jumping into a tender or dinghy for forty winks.

This all sounds very delightful and sure enough, last month she was found in a dinghy near Marmaris, recuperating from her long swim from Rhodes back to Turkey where she likes to spend the summer months.

According to Zafer Kızılkaya a representative of SAD/AFAG, “she was resting in a dinghy but it seems some people took advantage of this and we received reports that some people were kicking her and throwing stones at her. Unfortunately the attitude of many Turkish people is that when they see an animal like Badem they want to play with her – but really it’s more like torture. This is quite intolerable.”

“This sort of abuse is unacceptable but is hard to stop. A decision had already been taken to take her to a secure, protected place once the season started and this was planned for the end of May. While it is better for her to be free it is imperative that she and her kind are safeguarded from danger and ignorant actions of people who don’t know any better.”

He continues. “In fact, when Badem escaped from the unwelcome attention she returned to the pen that she sees as home. Our resident ‘Badem watcher’ Irfan Yıldırım, who treats her like his daughter, saw Badem trying to get back into her secure pen. He opened it up and she swam inside. She obviously wanted to be left in peace and undisturbed.”

Kiraç and his colleagues are in the process of creating a centre where Badem and other vulnerable marine mammals like her can be protected and if necessary rehabilitated. They now have a sturdy 50 metres diameter pen constructed in a remote bay and plan to use it to protect and if possible rehabilitate marine mammals.

The next important decision they will have to take is when and if Badem becomes pregnant. As an air-breathing mammal she will give birth on land. Female Monk Seal’s deliver their pups in caves and it is important that Badem’s offspring do not become conditioned to humans in the same way that she has.

There are few options open to SAD/AFAG all of which are full of risks but Kızılkaya is certain they will find a solution in which Badem’s needs are paramount. He is concerned nevertheless that on the coast of Turkey there is not one place remaining where any marine mammal can be left free and in peace.

Jane Akatay