Tourists by the busload visit the Cape Cross Seal Reserve daily to see Cape Fur seals, regardless of the fact that a few hours before they enter the reserve, scores of seal pups are killed as part of Namibia’s annual seal cull.
In fact, ‘seal tourism’ is as good as ever, if not better, according to reserve officers, nearby lodge staff and land and marine tour operators.
Depending on a visitor’s nationality, entry fees to the reserve range between N$10 and N$40 a person – excluding fees for vehicles, which vary according to the vehicle’s size.
Government reserve officers say July to December is the busiest season (the cull is from July to November), when up to 400 people a day stream in to see the seals. In the off season these figures range between 200 and 300 people a day.
Entry fees at Cape Cross bring in about N$3,4 million a year. Income generated by the reserve alone is nearly as much as the annual revenue from the cull of more than 90 000 seals for their fur, oil and genitals. Sealing concessionaires claim the cull generates about N$5 million a year.
Tour operators say Cape Cross forms part of their itinerary.
“People love coming here. They like seeing so many seals together, and to be so close to them,” one operator said.
Another said although the reserve is not on their itinerary, tourists “nag” him to make a quick stop at Cape Cross.
Tourists sometimes mention the cull.
“[The subject] won’t always come up. Sometimes I get asked and then I tell them a little about it, but besides a little objection, the tour goes on and ultimately the tourists forget about the whole cull thing after they’ve spent some time at the reserve. Very few take it so seriously that they don’t want to see the seals. Curiosity eventually gets the better of them,” a bus driver said.
According to reserve officers, some visitors say the cull makes their visit more “fascinating”.
“Maybe they just want to see the animals. Maybe the harvest intrigues them to have a last look at the seals, wanting to enjoy the best of them instead of thinking of them as dead,” one officer said.
Most tourists at Cape Cross who were told about the cull were not surprised.
“We read about it, but did not see any sign of it happening now.
At least the seals are still here,” a German couple commented.
A French tourist, who returned to Cape Cross for a second time, said she was back to spend more time taking photos of the animals, and also to learn more about the cull.
“What can one do to stop it? Will it help if tourists stop coming here? I don’t think so. The killing will probably still continue,” she said.
Seal rights activists such as SA Seal Alert, Sea Shepherd and Seals of Namibia are vehemently opposed to the “cruel slaughter” of the seals.
They argue that there is more money to be made from eco-tourism than from the cull, and have called for an international boycott of Namibian tourism and products until the government stops the cull.
They have also rejected a recent report by the Namibian Ombudsman, John Walters, that Namibia is adhering to national laws and international standards when it comes to the seal cull.
Police officers are stationed at the reserve, along with security guards, to keep an eye out for possible protesters.
These people may include activists who want to camp at the reserve in protest of the cull, or people filming the cull to shock the international community.
About three kilometres north of the reserve is the upmarket Cape Cross Lodge, which, according to staff, is packed to capacity at present.
Asked if the seals play an important role, lodge manager Leon Swanepoel said the seals are “very important”.
“We don’t depend on the seals, but every day tourists to the reserve come here to eat and drink, or sometimes even stay. And visitors only coming here for the tranquility will also take a walk to the reserve to view the seals,” he said.
He said 10 to 15 per cent of the lodge’s revenue could be attributed to the seal reserve.
But it’s not just Cape Cross’s seals that attract tourists. There are also marine tour operators at Walvis Bay who guarantee tourists an up-close-and-personal encounter with Cape fur seals.
A few seals, with names like ‘Sakkie’, ‘Oscar’, ‘Friday’, and ‘Junior’, swim alongside the boats, beckoning for fresh pilchards before jumping onto the boats to the delight of passengers. Tour operators, in turn, dish up information on the seal’s anatomy and habits, and even allow the tourists to feed and touch them.
“It’s a highlight of the tour,” one operator said.
Another marine tour operator agreed that seals are “crucial” to the marine tourism industry at the coast.
There are about eight marine tour operators at Walvis Bay, and seals mean millions of dollars to the industry. There are other spin-offs like job creation and industry development for the local economy.
“They are part of the ocean’s big five here. If they were gone, the industry would lose out,” the operator said.
He said that tourists love to have contact with the seals, and even though some marine conservationists do not appreciate the interaction, only a few seals are involved in getting so close to people.
“They are the seals’ ambassadors. We don’t make a circus act; we show people why seals should be appreciated,” he said.
Operators also claim that the cull does not affect the positive impact of seals on the marine tourism industry.
“We should not be worried about the cull. Maybe there are better ways to do it, but there are bigger concerns that could have an even worse impact on the seals, and tourism. Developments like marine phosphate mining for instance,” an operator said.