‘Stolen’ seal pups are released back to nature after being found dying

More than 60 protected seal pups stolen by suspected animal traffickers to sell to aquariums have been rescued and released into the wild in eastern China.

These baby spotted seals were found starving and dying on a farm in the city of Dalian in February, all less than two weeks old then.

Authorities put the pups under the care of three government-approved organisations before sending them back to nature in two batches: 24 on April 11 and 37 on May 10.

Spotted seals live in the waters of the North Pacific Ocean and can be found along the north-eastern cost of China, particularly on the Liaodong Peninsula near the Yellow Sea. The species gets its name from its coat pattern.

They are a second-class protected animal species in China – along with heavily trafficked pangolins and Asian black bears. Hunting, farming or trading of spotted seals without permission is prohibited by China’s Wildlife Protection Law. 

Despite legal protection, spotted seals are one of the most hunted wild animals in China due to their waterproof skin and highly desirable genitalia – a traditional answer to ‘Viagra’. 

According to Dalian police, a gang of 12 suspects, said to be local fishermen from the county-level city of Wafangdian, had illegally caught a total of 100 pups in the wild. 

Among them, 29 seals had died ‘from shock’ before the police arrived and 10 more died after being found because of weak health, reported China’s state broadcaster CCTV.

Dalian police saved the pups from a small geese farm in the village of Hutou in Wafangdian on February 11. 

Upon discovery, all pups – each weighing eight kilograms (17.6 pounds) or so – were struggling on the brink of death. 

They were still sporting their fur, cramped into a tiny room and wailing desperately. 

Workers on the farm simply gave them large chunks of fish, which the pups would not be able to eat, a local official said in a previous interview.

Authorities took them to two ocean parks and an institute of marine and aquatic sciences to be looked after. 

Chu Shanhe, a veterinarian who took care of some of the seals, said the animals’ health was extremely weak when they were first taken to his team. 

At last week’s release ceremony, Mr Chu who works at Dalian Sun Asia Ocean World told Liaoning Satellite Television Station: ‘After three months of meticulous care and treatment, they are largely healthy now. 

‘Their weight has reached 30 kilograms (66 pounds) which is the standard (for the release).’

Staff at the Sun Asia Ocean World gave the pups a blood test last week to ensure that they were healthy enough before releasing them back to the waters from Dalian’s Huping Island.  

Footage provided by animal welfare organisation Humane Society International shows pups gliding down a slide from their cages into the sea water with the help of workers from Dalian Laohutan Ocean Park, which looked after 18 pups.

Experts at the Liaoning Ocean and Fisheries Science Research Institute put a GPS chip on one of the pups, hoping to track the movements of the pod.

Researcher Lu Zhichuang said the last pod, which was released on April 11, had swum out of Bohai Bay into the Yellow Sea, according to GPS data from one of the seals that carried a tracking device.

Researchers will monitor the GPS information until the group of seals reach ‘safe waters’.    

Authorities in Dalian have vowed to strengthen the surveillance of the local coasts to prevent poaching of seals.

Dalian police have caught 10 suspects in relation to the case and formally arrested five of them. 

The latest report said the police were still looking for two others, who were on the run. A manhunt with cash rewards was launched.

Dr. Peter Li, the China Specialist at Humane Society International, praised the ‘swift action’ from the police in a country with ‘a shocking record for wildlife exploitation’.

But he also expressed concerns: ‘Sadly, China’s growing obsession for keeping marine species like seals and turtles in captivity is fuelling wildlife crime such as this, which causes immense animal suffering and loss of life.’  

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