Writings of Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan; A Friend of Endangered Species, the Vulnerable Habitat and the Monk Seal

Editor’s note: The late Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan (1933 – 2003) had a particular fondness for the critically endangered Mediterranean monk seal. Mr. William M. Johnson, editor of the on-line journal The Monachus Guardian, which is dedicated  to “Monk Seals and their Threatened Habitats,” had the pleasure of accompanying the Prince on several of his visits to Greece. Below we publish an excerpt from Mr. Johnson’s tribute to Prince Sadruddin, uncle of the current 49th Ismaili Imam, His Highness the Aga Khan. The excerpt from the obituary is followed by two other interesting pieces which were written by Prince Sadruddin - the first guest editorial for The Monachus Guardian on the subject of the monk seal, and a Preface to Johnson’s book The Rose-Tinted Menagerie, which reveals the history of the exploitation of animals in captivity for public entertainment and profit. Simerg is deeply indebted to Mr. Johnson for permission to produce these pieces here. Links are provided at the end of the post to the original articles as well as the unabridged on-line version of  The Rose-Tinted Menagerie.

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Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan

Sadruddin Aga Khan was a source of inspiration to conservation, human rights and animal welfare – just some of the key areas that composed his holistic view of the world

By William M. Johnson

Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan with Theodoros, the orphaned monk seal, Alonissos, June 1992. Photo: Matthias Schnellmann, The Monachus Guardian. Copyright

[The late Prince Sadruddin] for many years proved a good and faithful friend of the Mediterranean monk seal.

Prince Sadruddin served as UN High Commissioner for Refugees between 1965-1977, and would almost certainly have been appointed UN Secretary General in 1981 had it not been for a Soviet veto. He was appointed coordinator of UN humanitarian assistance in Afghanistan in 1988 and assumed similar responsibilities for Iraq and Kuwait after the Gulf War in 1990. From 1992 until his death he acted as chargé de mission to Kofi Annan.

Outside the UN, the Prince was equally at home campaigning for nuclear disarmament as he was fighting against the exploitation of dolphins in captivity, deforestation, or the cruelties of the fur trade. In 1977, he founded the Geneva-based Bellerive Foundation, which came to reflect his own passionately-held holistic philosophy.

In 1990, Bellerive became alarmed by reports that a marine circus in the south of France, Antibes Marineland, was about to capture monk seals off the coast of Mauritania. There followed an intense international campaign to thwart the capture plan and, throughout it all, the Prince maintained an avid personal interest in unfolding events, frequently calling from his UN office to check on developments and to offer advice.

In March 1992, Prince Sadruddin made his first face-to-face acquaintance with the Mediterranean monk seal, attending the release of orphaned pup Efstratia on the Aegean island of Alonissos in the Northern Sporades Marine Park. Accompanied by his wife, Princess Catherine, the Greek Environment Minister and a throng of journalists, the visit helped draw worldwide attention to the plight of the species.

The Prince was visibly touched, both by the bewildered monk seal pup snuffling at his fingers in the Steni Vala rescue station, as by the genuine warmth and hospitality shown to him by the local people of Alonissos.

Of the shy, once trusting seal of the Mediterranean, he remarked that, in many ways it is “a totemic like symbol for the good side of the human species.”

Later on in Athens, the Prince brought his diplomatic skills to bear, championing the monk seal cause in meetings with ministers, the prime minister, and even the president of the republic.

“He was vocal on numerous subjects, ranging from the plight of monk seals on the Sporadean island of Alonissos to nuclear disarmament, and from the spectacle of a wretched panda trained to play a trumpet in a circus to the detrimental impact on the planet of mass deforestation.” – The Times, 16 May 2003

In June the same year, he returned to Alonissos, where he was awarded Honorary Citizenship in a ceremony attended by the wife of the then Prime Minister, Constantine Mitsotakis.

For the next few days, Prince Sadruddin held “town hall” meetings with local stakeholders, hiked over the archipelago’s uninhabited islands and made the personal acquaintance of that other famous ambassador of the monk seal species, Theodoros, the orphaned seal that had so endeared himself to the local community.

Later the same year, he donated a new 42-seat community bus to Alonissos in an effort to encourage the island to stake its future on the Marine Park rather than the mass tourism route so common to the Aegean.

At the same time, he spearheaded efforts to establish an Athens-based foundation for the monk seal, encouraging wealthy ship-owners and other industrialists to commit themselves to saving Europe’s most endangered marine mammal. Although it proved an uphill battle, before winding up its activities the foundation had donated some quarter of a million dollars to monk seal conservation efforts in the Aegean.

In 1994, he had Bellerive join forces with the International Marine Mammal Association to defeat yet another attempt by Antibes Marineland to capture monk seals in Mauritania.

[In 2002] Prince Sadruddin stepped in to save The Monachus Guardian from closure, personally urging other organisations to match his funding commitment. Within weeks, WWF International had reacted positively to his appeal, allowing the Guardian to continue publishing for another year.

Over time, Prince Sadruddin became increasingly frustrated by the glacial pace of government bureaucracies in tackling ecological and animal welfare abuse, and by the seemingly infinite capacity of officials to evade even the most compelling facts of a logical argument.

He could be equally incensed by conflicts between organisations that supposedly shared the same worthy goals – a conviction that originally inspired Bellerive’s faith, and nurtured its talents, in assembling broad coalitions to tackle pressing issues.

At the same time, the Prince often voiced concern that, in striving to meet the challenges of operating within a new world economic order, NGOs could themselves become corporate entities alienated from the very people they needed to reach and to convince.

Sadruddin Aga Khan will be a sorely missed source of inspiration to conservation, human rights and animal welfare – just some of the key areas that composed his holistic view of the world.

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GUEST EDITORIAL

A Little Imagination

“The question is, Can anything be done? Over the years, I have discussed monk seal conservation with numerous people, from government ministers to businessmen and scientists, from conservation activists to school children. Ironically, it is often the young who have the clearest idea of what needs to be done. It is the young who are impatient for answers, intolerant of delay. Where others find themselves wallowing in bureaucratic quicksand, the young often see common sense solutions and cannot understand why establishment figures are reluctant to seize the initiative. Some might call this naïveté, but one wonders whether this is just the cynic’s way of justifying inaction.”

The late Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan (1933 - 2003) with the orphaned monk seal pup Efstratia on Alonissos. Photo Credit: Matthias Shnellmann, The Monachus Guardian. Copyright.

By Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan

While gladly seizing this opportunity to write The Monachus Guardian’s first ever Guest Editorial, I have to admit that sitting down with pen and paper was not quite as simple as I had first imagined.

What, exactly, would I write about? Under other circumstances, I might have chosen to relate my own moving experiences with the monk seals Theodoros and Efstratia on Alonissos in the Northern Sporades Marine Park – two orphans that would almost certainly have perished without human assistance. I might also have written about the frustrations involved in mounting a coherent international campaign for such a critically endangered species, particularly where indifference and bureaucracy seem to erect one demoralising hurdle after another. I might have focused on the inexplicable decision of the EU and other funding agencies to cut financial assistance to Greek and Turkish monk seal projects – at the precise moment that substantial progress is being made in creating protected areas. Alternatively, I might have explored the growing concerns over animal welfare as some scientists appear to be spending more time harassing monk seals during the course of their research than devising solutions to protect them.

Yet in considering the contents of the current issue, I cannot miss this opportunity of commenting upon mass tourism’s devastating impact upon the Mediterranean monk seal and its habitat.

Promoting the cause of sustainable, environmentally-friendly tourism, the 1992 Rio Earth Summit promised all sorts of initiatives to protect endangered species and vulnerable habitats from the lethal excesses of this lucrative global industry. In its wake came Green Globe, ECoNETT and various other projects promoted by the tourism sector to improve its own environmental track record. While such efforts are laudable in and of themselves, in the case of the Mediterranean monk seal – a species so unrelentingly victimized by the industry since the 1950s – it is hard to escape the suspicion that all of this represents little more than hot air.

As indicated in this issue’s main article by William M. Johnson and David M. Lavigne, tourism continues to play a fundamental role in the final eradication of the monk seal, and even poses a serious threat in the protected areas that are at last being established for the species. Monk seals are still being harassed in their caves by tourists and speed boats. Elsewhere, monk seal habitat is being turned into coastal development strips dominated by resort complexes. As far as anyone can see, the beaches of the Mediterranean are still littered with plastic, and polluted with oil and tar. Incredibly, seals have even been speargunned by snorkelling tourists – no doubt a magnificent trophy to human stupidity.

Prince Sadruddin and Princess Catherine (second and third from left) attending the release of orphaned monk seal pup Efstratia. Photo Credit: Matthias Schnellmann, The Monachus Guardian. Copyright

The question is, Can anything be done? Over the years, I have discussed monk seal conservation with numerous people, from government ministers to businessmen and scientists, from conservation activists to school children. Ironically, it is often the young who have the clearest idea of what needs to be done. It is the young who are impatient for answers, intolerant of delay. Where others find themselves wallowing in bureaucratic quicksand, the young often see common sense solutions and cannot understand why establishment figures are reluctant to seize the initiative. Some might call this naivete, but one wonders whether this is just the cynic’s way of justifying inaction.

For the last of the monk seals who are losing their homes and their lives to mass tourism, a little imagination could go a long way. It is, for example, not difficult to imagine how the tourism industry could – with no noticeable financial pain to itself – make a significant contribution towards saving Europe’s most endangered marine mammal. It could provide funding for grassroots conservation projects in the fields of environmental education and the guarding of marine reserves. It could bring its prodigious lobbying powers to bear in supporting the conservation effort, speeding the creation of protected areas and developing alternative tourism opportunities. It could print its own educational material on the importance of the Mediterranean marine ecosystem, of which the monk seal is a vital symbol.

Some might argue that the industry is under no moral or financial obligation to the monk seal. Regardless of the compelling evidence to the contrary, I ask readers to consider one vital point. This is not a case of charities going, cap in hand, in search of corporate generosity. Quite the contrary. In numerous cases, small grassroots projects in Greece, Turkey and elsewhere are actually subsidising this billion dollar industry through conservation activities that seek to prevent or repair the specific damage caused by tourism. Although they can ill-afford it, they are establishing marine parks and deploying patrol boats, mounting conservation education campaigns and reaching out to governments, industry and the general public for a helping hand. It is high time that the travel industry reciprocated.

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Preface

The Rose-Tinted Menagerie puts the exploitation of animals in circuses and oceanaria into the much broader context of global environmental destruction and humankind’s ailing relationship with the planet.

By Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan

For those who have always felt an instinctive revulsion for the travelling menagerie, it might not seem altogether surprising that cruelty and deprivation lurks behind all the razzmatazz and glitter of the circus world. But I’m pleased to say that this book is not merely content with recounting in abstract the suffering that these animals must endure in order to provide their human audience with a short-lived thrill. Here, we also see the animals as individuals, and in graphic detail, the shadowy enterprises, dealers and showmen who profit from their exploitation.

A pair of baby elephants straining feverishly at the heavy chains which shackle them to the ground in a circus tent; ice-skating polar bears that must live most of their lives confined to boxes no more than a metre square; a giant panda – that most famous endangered species of all – trained to blow a trumpet and ride a motorbike. Haunting images such as these abound in William Johnson’s book, The Rose-Tinted Menagerie.

As he so lucidly reveals, the true nature of those unfortunate creatures that must snarl, dance or mimic their human masters under the big top is as mocked today as it was when the circus first sprang to life in the amphitheatres of ancient Rome.

Epitomised by that endless tale of misfortune that lies behind the clown-like smile of the captive dolphin, we see how illusion has been crafted meticulously in order to convince the public that the performing circus animal is happy and content in its deprived surroundings. That deprivation, as William Johnson points out, is far more fundamental than is first suggested by the bare, cramped and squalid pools and cages to be seen in virtually every menagerie and oceanarium. The species they contain have been estranged from the myriad influences which shaped their natures and existence in the wild.

As a philosophical work that should become of major importance to the conservation movement, The Rose-Tinted Menagerie puts the exploitation of animals in circuses and oceanaria into the much broader context of global environmental destruction and humankind’s ailing relationship with the planet.

On a journey through history, we see the evolution of that fearful anthropocentrism which afflicts the human race in our species’ futile quest for supremacy over the Earth. As William Johnson suggests, it is perhaps inevitable that the fragmentation so evident in human society today is the direct legacy of our separation from Mother Nature. Indeed, it may well be surmised that speciesism, coupled with humanity’s unwillingness to perceive the vital inter-relationships which compose a global ecology, has done more damage to the environment than any other single factor. By the same token, encouraging a holistic or all-embracing perception of the living Earth must be at the heart of humanity’s awakening ecological awareness. In many respects, we must sweep away the outmoded ideas and institutions that still bind us to an environmentally-damaging past. That endangered species should still inhabit the beast wagons of travelling shows, that dolphins and whales should still be captured and carted around the world for exhibition is not only unconscionable in itself, but also serves to perpetuate an insidious utilitarian view of creation.

The Rose-Tinted Menagerie is an impressive contribution to the cause of conservation and animal welfare. I very much hope that it will play, as it deserves, a fundamental role in shaping a new ecological awareness.

Date reading posted: February 7, 2011

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Notes and Credits:

Photos by Matthias Schnellmann. See his portfolio at http://www.21a.ch/

The original obituary of Prince Sadruddin by William Johnson can be read at http://www.monachus-guardian.org/mguard11/1103obitua.htm

We invite our readers, especially the youth, to visit the following Web sites:

1. http://www.iridescent-publishing.com/ for access to the full unabridged on-line version of The Rose-Tinted MenagerieA History of Animals in Entertainment,from Ancient Rome to the 20th century

2. http://www.iridescent-publishing.com/rtmorder.htm to purchase the book. The widely acclaimed 325-page book relates to circus history, whales and dolphins in captivity, and the devastating impact of utilitarian human attitudes towards nature and animals. The following is an excerpt of a review of the book by BBC Wildlife Magazine:

“Before the publication of William Johnson’s book, the animal rights movement’s case against training other animals to entertain human beings was made in abstract theory. The great merit of Johnson’s book is that he makes the case in concrete fact. No slightly compassionate person who reads this book, will continue to applaud or be indifferent to ‘performing animals.’ A ground-breaking work… of great importance. Johnson’s historically unparalleled brief will hasten the demise of a tradition that continues to survive only because of human ignorance and indifference.”

3. http://www.monachus-guardian.org/. The Web site, edited by The Rose-Tinted Menagerie’s author William Johnsons is dedicated to monk seals and their threatened habitats.

Other background notes:

Lisbon, 7th February 2002: An application to import ten wild-captured bottlenose dolphins from Guinea-Bissau (West Africa) into Portugal for public display at the Lisbon Zoo was refused by the Portuguese authorities to CITES (Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora). This move was praised by a coalition of animal welfare groups and conservationists including the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS), the Born Free Foundation, Eurogroup for Animal Welfare and the Bellerive.

The late Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, Founder and Director of the Bellerive Foundation, commented as follows on this positive move by the Portuguese authorities: “The trade in dolphins has been going on for too long. Too many dolphins have suffered, paying the price with shortened lives in captivity. It is time for this practice to end. In refusing to allow this import of dolphins, the Portuguese authorities are setting an important precedent for the protection of these beautiful animals. I now call on other countries to follow suit and ban further trade.”

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Please see the following postings on Prince Sadrudddin Aga Khan on this Web site:

Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan: A Rare and Insightful Interview With The UNESCO Courier

Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan: Some of the Causes for the Refugee Crisis – Injustice, Intolerance and Lack of Respect for Human Rights

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2 thoughts on “Writings of Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan; A Friend of Endangered Species, the Vulnerable Habitat and the Monk Seal

  1. This and the other articles on “Great Moments in Ismaili History” portraying our history and historical monuments have been great to read and gain from. I now feel like traveling and enjoying our past history.

    Thank you and Ya Ali Madad!

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