Last week’s birth of a Hawaiian monk seal on a busy Waikiki beach wasn’t just a rare spectacle for tourists, it was a landmark event in the recovery of this critically endangered native species. And it’s more proof that the Endangered Species Act works.

Rocky, officially known at RH58, has given birth to nine other pups, all on the same beach in her native Kauai. She’s been living mostly in Oahu since 2002 and would swim back to Kauai to have her pups. But this time, Rocky remained on Hawaii’s most populated island.

This widely witnessed birth on Waikiki — the first one recorded there since the Hawaiian monk seal was placed on the endangered species list in 1976 — is a promising sign that Hawaiian monk seals are on the path to recovery.

A Hawaiian monk seal and her pup on Kaimana Beach on Thursday.

Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat

It’s been a long journey. Hawaiian monk seals have lived on the Hawaiian archipelago for millions of years but their population has declined dramatically since the 1950s, due to a number of factors including food limitation and net entanglements. 

These iconic seals numbered around 1,700 individuals and were spiraling toward extinction when they became federally protected. 

They’re still struggling but we’ve seen important improvements in recent years. Robust conservation measures, new critical habitat protections and funding for Hawaiian monk seal recovery under the act has helped turn around a multi-decade decline that had dropped the population to a low of about 1,100 seals in  2009.

Today the population numbers about 1,400, with annual increases of almost 3 percent since 2009. The fastest growth is in the subpopulation around the main Hawaiian Islands, now expanding at more than 10 percent per year. Oahu and other populated islands are where scientists say they need to thrive if this species is to survive.

These increases are no accident, and it wouldn’t have happened without the Endangered Species Act, which has staved off extinction for 99 percent of the animals and plants under its care and put hundreds on the road to recovery.

Rocky and her pup are protected from harassment by volunteers and federal and state conservation laws. These same laws help protect seal habitat while allowing for surfing, fishing and other activities.

Yet the recovery of Hawaiian monk seals could still be derailed by President Trump and congressional Republicans, who have been trying to weaken the Endangered Species Act, yank funding from conservation programs, and possibly revoke protections offered by the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, key monk seal habitat in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

There are those who say we can’t afford to protect endangered species from extinction. They set up false conflicts between imperiled species like the Hawaiian monk seal and people who want to develop property, fish, or just enjoy the natural places that we share with wildlife.

But the sight of this monk seal mother and her newborn pup bonding on one the world’s most popular beaches is a testament to the possibilities of peaceful coexistence between humans and a species that is slowly rebounding from near extinction.

The Endangered Species Act works because people care – and we need to continue caring enough to see even more monk seals pups on our beaches.

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