Elephant seals of the Falklands

Please note: this page contains some outdated informations !!!

From a preliminary review of the available information about presence of elephant seals in the Falklands, we concluded that Sea Lion Island is the main breeding site of elephant seals in the islands and that its population represents 90% or more of the whole breeding population of the Falklands Islands. In the absence of a reliable census of the other breeding sites, an estimate of the whole Falklands population size cannot be obtained. The elephant seals of the Falklands were heavily exploited as a source of high-quality oil in the 18th century: the population was very reduced by the beginning of this century, when sealing was concentrated on South Georgia. Then the population slowly recovered and the production in the 1950s was estimated at about one thousand pups, representing a population of about 3,500 individuals; this estimate was confirmed by a partial survey carried on in 1965. No survey has been carried on since then. More recent reports of high pup production (up to 5000 pups) and increase in colonies size seem unlikely: given the scarce breeding outside of Sea Lion Island, we think that the whole population size may be significantly smaller.

World map and the Falklands

The only established breeding site of elephant seals for which hard data is actually available is Sea Lion Island, where the net production during the last breeding season (1998) was 543 weanlings. During the australian summer of 1995-1996 a survey of the whole Falklands coast was conducted by to estimate size of penguins populations: a record of sightings of elephant seals was kept. Albeit carried on with different specific goals and during a suboptimal period of the year this survey gave preliminary indication about elephant seals breeding. Just small groups of elephant seals were observed, and in few sites: about 30 females at Sedge Is., and about 10 females each at Saunders Is., Emily Island, Sand Bar Is., and Carcass Is (Mike Bingham, pers. comm.). In 1997 reports of breeding elephant seals from these sites suggest lower estimates. The reduction in number was linked to a progressive abandonment of traditional breeding sites: a typical example is the Elephant Point area of Saunders Island (from about four hundreds breeding females in 1981 to less than ten in 1997, with a net production probably equal to 0; Poole-Evans, pers. comm.). Another penguin census carried on in November 1998 revealed modest signs of elephant seals breeding outside Sea Lion Island (Mike Morrison, pers. comm.). lephant seals are a valuable resource of Falklands from an aesthetic and scientific point of view, and are now a primary attraction for the expanding tourist industry. The lack of information about the population of elephant seals, and the potential risk to its survival due to the recent changes in lifestyle and economy of the Falklands, make a complete survey compelling.

We wish to broaden our knowledge of elephant seals of the Falkland Islands by carrying on a survey of the whole population. The information about timing and pattern of breeding we collected on Sea Lion Island should be the basis for the planning of this survey. It will require the collection of preliminary information from local sources, an aerial census of the whole Falklands during the breeding season, and the expansion of our already established tagging and resighting plan.
This survey should provide an updated list of breeding sites, a good estimate of the size of the population, and data about survival rate of different age classes: together with the high resolution data from our intensive study of Sea Lion Island this new information should provide the parameters needed to determine the current status of the population and forecast its future. These results should then have an important role in conservation policy.