Digging safe homes for endangered freshwater seals | WWF

Digging safe homes for endangered freshwater seals

Posted on
26 January 2017
The last few years have been tough for one of the world's most endangered seals - the Saimaa ringed seal. Only around 360 of these freshwater seals now live in Finland and the survival of the species is increasingly threatened by the impact of climate change.

The seals need snowbanks to build the lairs where they give birth to their pups, but there has not been enough deep snow in recent winters to provide them with sanctuary. Where there are no snowbanks, the pups are born on the open ice with no protection from predators, the cold or human disturbance.

In response, volunteers working with WWF and Parks & Wildlife Finland have spent days shovelling snow on the ice of Lake Saimaa, building snowbanks for the seals to use.

“Without this help, up to half of the pups could die,” said Liisa Rohweder, CEO of WWF Finland. “When we have made these mounds before, almost all of the pups were born in these artificial drifts.”

The first snowbanks built for seals were tested as a part of a research project cofunded by WWF Finland and carried out by scientists at the University of Eastern Finland.

The plight of the Saimaa ringed seals is a foretaste of what may happen in other parts of the Arctic. The last three years were the warmest on record, and Arctic sea ice continues to shrink in extent and volume.

“We really appreciate the help of the volunteers but we can only take these stop-gap measures for so long,” added Rohweder. “At some point, we have to have a viable long-term plan. This includes taking quick action on climate change, and working out how we best conserve the spaces where ice-dependent populations can persist.”
 
 
Saima ringed seal pup in Finland
© Juha Taskinen / WWF-Finland
Volunteer building snow banks for Saimaa ringed seals in Finland
© Joonas Fritze / WWF
Saimaa ringed seal in Finland
© Juha Taskinen / WWF-Finland