Orphaned seal pup being prepared for release

- A young Mediterranean monk seal is being cared for in a rehabilitation centre after being found on a Greek beach without its mother.

The baby seal, known as Bill, will be released back into the wild later this year when he has reached his target weight.

Meet Bill, a Mediterranean monk seal. The endangered species is one of the rarest mammals in the world. Bill is currently a resident at rehabilitation unit for orphaned seals located at Greece's Attica Zoological Park, where he is enjoying five-star treatment including his own swimming pool and staff.

The seals get their name from their dark-and-light fur pattern and their natural habitat: the Mediterranean Sea. There are only about 700 left in the wild. Many are killed by fishermen and overdevelopment, according to data from Greek non-governmental organisation, MOm (Hellenic Society for the Study and Protection of the Monk Seal).

The animals are so people shy that they lurk in sea caves and sometimes even abandon their pups in panic if disturbed. "The most important remaining populations are in the Eastern Mediterranean, in Greece, mostly in Greece, where we find something like 400 animals," says Dr. Panos Dendrinos, a biologist working for MOm, a Greek NGO.

Bill was found near a holiday resort in northern Greece, a long distance from where Mediterranean monk seals usually breed. "The Port Police Authority, they called us and told us 'there is a pup here'. It was around there for several days, crying, no mother, no other animal was around," he adds.

MOm has set up a communication network with coastguards and fishermen along the 16-thousand kilometres of Greek coastline. Bill was taken to a zoo near Athens where MOm runs a rehabilitation site for pup seals like him.

He was underweight, anaemic and infected by parasites. Now he spends the day issuing barks to the staff who prepare specially designed meals for him. "They know the milk of the mother at this age, it is a bit of force feeding at the beginning. Then, they start to take whole fish, then of course the situation changes because they start learning by instinct that fish, of course, is their food," explains Dendrinos.

In a few months, Bill, who at present weights 25 kilos, will learn to catch whole fish. Once he reaches 60 kilos and can fend for himself, MOm will release Bill back to the Northern Aegean Sea.

The island of Alonnisos is the epicentre of Mediterranean monk seal territory. Its unspoilt coastline, full of caves, isolated beaches, and pristine waters making it a perfect ecosystem for the marine mammals.

In 1992, the Marine Park of Alonnisos-Northern Sporades was created to protect the area.

One year ago, the municipality took a step further and made Alonissos a plastic bag-free community.

Plastic bags often end up in the sea putting marine life at risk.

Stores and supermarkets removed them from the counters and the Town Hall distributed reusable fabric bags for shoppers to use instead.

"We gave an alternative to people and I think the results are amazing so far. I think in the first year we have reduced the use of plastic bags by 80 percent," says Deputy Mayor Angelos Argiriou.

The former head of the municipal council, Kostas Kaloyannis says the island had a "green" conscience even before it was fashionable.

Alonnisos has an efficient trash recycling system and a volunteer program during the summer to keep the Island spotless.

"From what I see now, I have seen more seals now than when I was a kid, when I used to go with my father to fish, but I see more of them now and that probably means that the population has increased," he says

In 2007 World Conservation Union data indicated that the number of Mediterranean monk seals had dropped to between 350 and 450 and they were listed as critically endangered.

A decade later, there are an estimated 700 of the animals according to MOm. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has them now listed as endangered.

The team at MOm hope that when Bill is released in a couple of months he will go onto breed and further increase the population of these rare mammals.

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