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Hawaii authorities call endangered seal death ‘intentional killing’



Spirits were high in late January when rescuers released Malama the Hawaiian monk seal back into the ocean.

Veterinarians had spent months fattening her up and nursing her back to health after saving her from starvation and near-certain death in August 2022. As she made a beeline for the water, her benefactors felt their job was done, their charge ready to go out on her own.

Malama had an auspicious start. Her rescuers watched as she quickly caught and ate a sea cucumber — an urchin-like creature that’s common prey for young monk seals. Then they left her to the ocean and to chance.

Less than two months later, she was dead.

But Malama didn’t starve to death or get eaten by a predator. Authorities announced Tuesday that she died of blunt-force trauma and that they believe someone killed her intentionally. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is offering a reward of up to $5,000 for information that leads to a criminal conviction or civil judgment.

“We’re asking for help from anyone who may have seen or heard anything related to the killing of this endangered animal which is not only a violation of federal law but a hateful act against all the people who call Hawai’i their home,” Frank Giaretto, a deputy special agent with NOAA’s law enforcement division, said in a news release.


Hawaiian monk seals are the most endangered seal or sea lion species in the United States, although they’re mounting a slow recovery with the help of conservationists, according to the Marine Mammal Center, a nonprofit dedicated to rescuing animals along the coasts of California and the Big Island of Hawaii. In 2015 and 2016, there were about 1,100; a survey completed several weeks ago found around 1,600, Sophie Whoriskey, the center’s Hawaiian monk seal conservation veterinarian, told The Washington Post.

Malama was born last June on the Manana Island Seabird Sanctuary, just off the southeastern tip of Oahu, NOAA said in a news release. Observers quickly noted that the pup, initially dubbed RQ76, was smaller than average, as was her mother, Kala. NOAA Fisheries kept a close eye on her, while giving her an additional name — Malama, which can mean light or moon.

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On July 12, a NOAA Fisheries crew visited Manana Island and assessed Malama, confirming she was small for her age. Hawaiian monk seals nurse for about a month before their mothers wean them, leaving them to fend for themselves. The pups use the fat reserves they build during nursing to survive the first few months learning to forage.

Worried, officials decided to help Malama but only after she had spent a month on her own, learning skills she would need to survive, like basic foraging and socialization.

On Aug. 4, they rescued her and took her to the Marine Mammal Center’s monk seal hospital on the Big Island. Upon admission, she weighed some 63 pounds, a waif compared with normal newly weaned monk seal pups that are two to three times that size.

“This pup weaned from her mother underweight and undersized and her survival was unlikely without intervention,” Lauren Van Heukelem, the center’s Hawaii response manager, said in an Aug. 17 news release.


For more than five months, Malama recovered. They did a full blood work-up to check for infectious diseases, gave her fluids and used a tube to pump “fish smoothies” into her stomach. When she got stronger, they switched her to “restaurant quality” herring. Luckily for Malama, she came to the center along with a cohort of other pups, so she also learned to interact and compete for food.

“She did really well … and we were able to correct that malnutrition over several months,” Whoriskey said.

All monk seals are charismatic, she added, but Malama was different. Bright, curious and engaging, she was always poking around to see what was going on.

“She really stood out,” Whoriskey said.

After more than five months, Whoriskey and others at the center felt Malama was ready to go back into the wild and alerted NOAA. On Jan. 28, a U.S. Coast Guard flight crew loaded her onto a C-130 transport aircraft in Kona and flew her back to Oahu, where NOAA Fisheries officials released her onto a beach. She headed right for the water, and after exploring for a few minutes, caught the sea cucumber.

Her rescuers left her to fend for herself, excited about a future they’d help create.

“It’s really special when we return a rehabilitated seal to the wild,” Diana Kramer, a regional coordinator with NOAA Fisheries, said in a statement days after Malama’s release. “The first thing we saw [her] do was put her feeding skills to work, snacking on a sea cucumber! We’re hopeful that she will flourish and contribute to the monk seal population.”


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Just over six weeks later, Malama was found dead on the west coast of Oahu. NOAA Fisheries investigators determined that she died from “severe blunt-force trauma.” Over the next several weeks, they consulted with experts in marine mammal radiology and forensics to refine that assessment, ultimately concluding that someone had probably killed her — intentionally.

Whoriskey said the news was shocking and heartbreaking. All indications were that Malama was reintegrating well into the wild.

“We’re all trying to understand why … and to grieve, too, because this is an animal that was cared for by a lot of members of our community.”

Source: Washington Post


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