Cape Cross Seal Reserve is one of Namibia’s most famous attractions and one of the best places in the world to see seals wild and free. The reserve is home to up to 210,000+ Cape Fur seals during pup season, but they still number in the hundreds of thousands year-round. They are not caged or restricted in any way, nor are they fed to keep them there. However, the Namibian seal population is not without controversy.
Please note: there are graphic descriptions in this post, and graphic clips in the embedded videos. However, there are no disturbing visuals without warning.
Cape Cross Seal Reserve – Cape Fur Seals in Namibia
If you want to know what a few hundred thousand seals look like, Cape Cross Seal Reserve is the place to go on any Namibia itinerary. Cape Cross is home to the largest breeding colony of Cape Fur seals in the world. This adorable attraction is, however, mired in controversy over the country’s practice of seal harvesting. Visitors to the seal colony not only have the opportunity to spend time with a few hundred thousand cute seals, but to show the government what’s possible with seal tourism.The seal reserve checks all the boxes you would look for in terms of a responsible animal attraction. However, Namibia does still perform seal culling, a controversial practice...Click To Tweet
Is Cape Cross Seal Reserve responsible?
The first question on every responsible traveler’s mind when it comes to an animal-related attraction should be this one. And the answer here is a bit cloudy. The seal reserve is generally hands-off. The Ministry of Environment & Tourism administrates the park in terms of facilities, parking, fees, etc. But they have almost nothing to do with the seals.
The seal colony is fully independent. They are not fed. They are not contained. They can leave at any time. They have the autonomy to live, fight, mate, fish, nurse, play and very cutely bleat and bark. They aren’t trained or enticed in any way to do anything “for” tourists. The seal reserve checks all the boxes you would look for in terms of a responsible animal attraction.
However, Namibia does still perform seal culling, a controversial practice…
What is seal culling (seal harvesting)?
Seal culling is a near-extinct process internationally, but still in practice in Namibia. The Ministry of Fisheries and Marine resources executes “sustainable seal harvesting” annually, with the stated goal of controlling the population in order to preserve fish stocks for local fisheries. They set a quota to be met and the target is made up of bulls and pups.
While the government claims that the culling is necessary to control the seal population (and protect fish), basically the rest of the world disagrees. Seal culling is a practice that was common in all countries with large populations, but all have abandoned it citing that it doesn’t actually impact the fish availability and that the seals are more valuable from a tourist perspective.
Let’s be clear. Seal culling is BRUTAL. The annual quota is set and workers are contracted out to kill that quota, which is usually 85,000+ seals (about 80,000 pups and 6,000 bulls).
The pups are pulled from their mothers and clubbed to death. If they don’t die from the clubbing, they’ll be stabbed in the heart and/or have their throats slit. The bulls are shot, and have their genitalia cut off to sell as an aphrodisiac. They are skinned and their pelts used to make furs.
Seal culling or a profitable seal fur trade?
The government claims that the seal culling is only for environmental purposes. The population needs to be controlled for the seals and for the fish. At least that’s the company line. It would then beg the question, if the seal culling is purely for environmental purposes, why is there a thriving trade coming as a byproduct? Why is it that “export of seal pelts represents one of the largest trades of any mammal species out of Africa.”The pups are pulled from their mothers and clubbed to death. If they don't die from the clubbing, they'll be stabbed in the heart and/or have their throats slit. The bulls are shot, and have their genitalia cut off to sell as an aphrodisiac. They are skinned and their pelts used to make furs.Click To Tweet
Namibia is one of three countries that still harvest seals commercially (as of 2016, the three countries are Namibia, Greenland and the largest harvester, Canada). While a “wild seal” coat can fetch up to $30,000, the market is shrinking. 35 countries (the US, the EU and Taiwan) have already banned the import of seal products) and activists are getting more vocal.
In this video, Pat Dickens from Seals of Nam explains why the seal hunt is considered the cruelest in the world. It is not for sensitive viewers.
Additional info about seal harvesting and the seal trade
If you want to know more about the Namibian seal culling, as well as other countries harvesting seals commercially, here are the resources I trusted most when putting together this article.
The story of sealing in Namibia focuses sharply divergent interests: an overseas mogul who wants to expand his trading empire; animal welfare advocates who want to end seal hunts; biologists who worry about the long-term survival of the species; fishermen who blame the seals for stealing their catch; and a government agency, the Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources, that controls the seal trade and seems intent on keeping it going in the face of a global trend to close it down.
At 6am, the clubbing begins. Then, at 9am each morning, bulldozers clean up and restore the beach before the tourists arrive to view the colony, because all of this happens in a designated seal reserve.
Young pups still trying to grow from their mother’s sweet milk are mercilessly hit over their heads and all over their bodies. Then, whether they are alive or dead, they are stabbed and slashed open with knives, mother’s milk running from their mouths and noses and their blood freely flowing from their writhing little bodies.
That entire overpopulation argument is an obverse one to keep an entire industry shrouded, the industry of seal pelt trade, beauty product component trade, and body part trading.
Seals of Nam is on the forefront of the fight against culling in Namibia. Founded in 2010, Seals of Nam has one goal: end the annual seal hunt. They have resources, including the two videos in this post, and have brought activism and celebrity attention to the issue.
What are Cape Fur seals?
Cape Fur seals are the African sub-species of the eared seal family (Otariidae), marine mammals. The ears are what make them so cute. Basically, there are several sub-species of fur seals, classified based on their geographic location. Cape Fur seals are in Southern Africa, with about half the population in Namibia and half in South Africa. They are the only seals that breed in South Africa.
The males (bulls) grow up to 200-350 kg (440-770 lb) and females (cows) only grow to 40-80 kg (88-175 lb). Cows bear one pup at a time, with a gestation of 10 months. Bulls usually have a harem of cows, based on how much land they can acquire for themselves as mating season approaches. They head ashore before the females and stake claim on the beaches; cows tend to choose the larger bulls with more land. The harems can range from an estimated 5 to 75 cows.
As mammals, the pups suckle from their mothers. They have a long period before they are ready to wean, often taking 8-10 months before they start eating solid food. The bond between mother and pup is important because she must be able to identify her pup amongst the thousands through its smell and sound alone. Pups have a 30% mortality rate, not counting the quota during harvesting.
Cape fur seals primarily eat fish, with it making up 90% of their diet. They also eat squid, octopus, rays and sharks. However, while the Cape Fur seals eat fish (and protecting the fish population is central to the Namibian government’s argument for culling), most studies show that they do not eat fish that the fisherman are after. Their main predators are whales and sharks, and the Cape Cross waters can be teeming with them.
Cape Fur seals can hold their breath for 7-10 minutes and dive to depths of 400 meters. Breeding begins in October. Culling is in July and August.
Cape Cross Seal Reserve entry, hours and entry fees
Cape Cross Seal Reserve is a national park, administered by Namibian Wildlife Resorts (NWR).
The seal reserve’s entry hours are (as of July 2018): 8:00-17:00.
Current entry fees are N$40 (International), N$30 (SADC) and N$10 (Namibian), plus N$10 per vehicle. You can see the NWR fee schedule here.
History of Cape Cross
Cape Cross is just south of Skeleton Coast National Park, and shares a lot of the same history. The coast is not known for being hospitable to seafarers, but that didn’t stop people from coming. It was first explored by the Portuguese in the late 1400s. German explorers came in the 1800s and started to take more interest in the area.Let's be clear. Seal culling is BRUTAL. The annual quota is set and workers are contracted out to kill that quota, which is usually 85,000+ seals (about 80,000 pups and 6,000 bulls).Click To Tweet
The Cape Cross area is not a natural breeding ground for the seals. They were driven to the shores away from breeding islands as the government wanted to make it easier and cheaper to cull them. This change in habitat has introduced new, land-based predators for the Cape Cross seals in jackals and hyenas. The introduction of new predators has also introduced disease to the colony.
Cape Cross camping and accommodation
Cape Cross has a lodge and campsite, but is pricier and the town has no services (but you are minutes from the Seal Reserve). You can also look in Hentiesbaai, which is a small fishing village, but has petrol, ATMs and grocery stores. Mile 108 is a **tiny** “town” near the Ugabmund gate of Skeleton Coast with petrol, but it was pitch dark already at dusk, so we didn’t look into any lodges there.
What to see near Cape Cross Seal Reserve
North of Cape Cross Seal Reserve is Dorob National Park and Skeleton Coast National Park. South of Cape Cross Seal Reserve you can find Hentiesbaai and head all the way down to Swakopmund.
Walvis Bay is a popular hotspot because it is home to Dune 7. This is the best place to access Dune 7 and you’ll have to make a separate trip for Sossusvlei and Deadvlei.
East/Northeast of Cape Cross, you can spend a few days driving around dirt roads, seeing world heritage sites, rock paintings and carvings and enjoying the topography. Check out Palmwag (which has a lodge and camping to overnight in the region), Twyfelfontein (UNESCO World Heritage Site), Organ Pipes, Burnt Mountain and the Petrified Forest.
North of Skeleton Coast is Angola and West is the ocean, so stick with south or east.
Pin to share Namibia’s dirty secret and more info about Cape Cross Seal Reserve
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