In a string of caves along the coast of Cyprus, a colony of monk seals — the most endangered mammals in the Mediterranean — has found refuge.
But now environmentalists and residents are accusing developers of endangering the seals’ habitat, by building luxury villas on top of the caves.
Numbering only around 300 in the Mediterranean, they were christened “monk seals” in the late eighteenth century by a scientist who thought they bore a resemblance to a monk dressed in a hood.
Most are found in Greek waters. But tucked under white rocks by the town of Peyia in southwest Cyprus, caves provide sanctuary to some of the seven to 10 monk seals found in Cypriot waters, according to the government.
Standing on a coastal path, Peyia resident Mandie Davies pointed to a construction site of six part-finished villas above the caves.
“It’s a monstrosity,” she said.
One of the building projects is around 25 metres from the shore, lamented Peyia mayor Marinos Lambrou — one of many here to oppose a government green light for the villas.
‘Crucial for ecosystem’
Monk seals are crucial “for the ecosystem’s balance”, said Melina Marcou, a government scientist who swims in the caves and monitors the creatures with hidden cameras. But the seals’ habitat is so sensitive Ms. Marcou urges the public to avoid the caves.
Their numbers diminished through centuries of being disturbed by fishermen, the mammals abandoned beaches over-exploited by humans.
More recently, urbanisation and tourism have been the key drivers of the seals’ decline, said Marie-Aude Sevin, who works for the International Union for Conservation of Nature, an authority on monk seals and their numbers.
Cypriot law provides for a protection zone stretching 91 metres back from the shore, slightly less than the 100 metres recommended by the UN and EU.
But the Environment Ministry says even the government’s own rule does not apply to the six villas — a position contested by scientists and ecologists. A source close to the case said the Environment Ministry approved the villas on the basis of outdated maps.
This meant it failed to take into account the effect of erosion, working on the basis that the plots are further from the shore than in reality, the source added.
For Linda Leblanc, a municipal councillor in Peyia, the villas are a “terrible testament to the failure” of the government’s environmental policy.
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