Protecting Endangered Mediterranean Monk Seal Creates Eco-Tourism Haven in Greece

German marine biologist/filmmaker Thomas Schultze Westrum’s footage of Mediterranean monk seals breeding in Alonissos, Greece, caused a stir when it was first shown in 1984. Many of the marine biologists watching the film at a conference in Rhodes had never seen a monk seal before, even on film, according to a short video about the area produced by the eco-tourism travel service provider Greenloons. International organizations that had thought the animal was already extinct began to lobby for its protection, an effort that brought the local community together as well.

Sustainable Economic Development
“It was the Mediterranean monk seal, which is very closely tied to the Greek heritage, that has helped to bring a community together, create an eco-tourism movement, and assist sustainable economic development in the region,” said Greenloons founder Irene Lane.

Video: Greenloons / YouTube

The National Marine Park of Alonnisos Northern Sporades, the first designated marine park in Greece and the largest in Europe, was set up in 1992 to protect the habitat of the seals, which number just 600 individuals due to hunting, overfishing, and habitat destruction. A conservation group created in 1990, The Hellenic Society for the Study and Protection of the Monk Seal, or MOm, has rescued, rehabilitated, and released about 20 injured or orphan seal pups thus far and also conducts educational programs about the significance of the seals to the Mediterranean ecosystem.

Restrictions on human activities in the park and a desire to protect the seals has also made Alonnisos a haven for travelers looking for low-impact ways to explore the area’s beauty: conservation- and education-based sailing trips, hiking tours, photography, and snorkeling around red coral reefs and a sunken ancient city in crystal-clear waters.

More On The Mediterranean Monk Seal
Endangered Baby Monk Seals Recuperating in Turkey
Biologists Find Endangered Seals’ Secret Island Getaway
One Quarter of European Animals at Risk of Extinction

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Bitten by the Travel Bug

Pictured is Saltis at the Grand Canal in Venice.

(Cazenovia, NY – Oct. 2011) Michelle Saltis, a senior psychology major at Cazenovia College, had already mastered French and learned some Spanish when she fell in love with Italy during an honors seminar course in Greece and Italy with the All-College Honors Program. She vowed to return to study in Europe for a semester.

Saltis of Keene, NH and a 2008 graduate of Keene High School, knew where to find what she wanted, and her mentors at Cazenovia College were happy to oblige. Although the College has a study-abroad program that allows students to spend a semester at Canterbury Christ Church University in Kent, England, with opportunities to travel throughout the United Kingdom and Europe, Saltis desired immersion in Italian culture.

She said, “Two of my friends studied in Florence through a program at Marist College, and after doing some research, I decided that would be the best place for me as well; I would be able to add to my set of romance languages – and I love being put in cultures very different from my own.”

With advocacy by her psychology professors, Dr. Rachel Dinero, Dr. Michael Holdren and Jesse Lott, director of the Learning Center, Saltis made her plans to spend a semester in Italy, and in mid-January of 2011, she arrived in Florence to begin a semester at Lorenzo de’Medici Italian International Institute.

In classes, she says, “I dipped eager fingers into flour and custard and vine-ripened tomatoes, learning to cook dishes from various regions of Italy; and I scratched ink on paper, expanding my vocabulary and observational skills in my travel writing class.”

She also took a course on the history and sociology of the Italian Mafia and studied theories on criminal behavior in her Psychology of Crime class. She recalls, “As the semester sped by, Italian began flowing from my lips with ease, expanding my opportunities to understand Florentine and Italian culture.”

She notes that Italy has “a culture of traditional foods and wines, of city-wide festivals and prideful souls, and of history unique to each region.” She continues, “Through aperitivo and sips of local Tuscan wine while gazing at the rolling yellow and green grape-filled hills, to traveling the mazed waters of Venice, seeing the spiraling cathedral in Milan, and traveling to Rome, the graveyard of ancient history, I let Italy soak itself into my core.”

Saltis also had many opportunities to travel, taking in the sights of Germany, France, Spain, Morocco, Luxembourg and The Netherlands. “I found another part of myself when I visited relatives in the beautiful cities of Heilbronn and Heidelberg, Germany,” she says. “I spent weeks in France with my friend, Florine, soaking up French culture, traditions and history. In Morocco, I grew to appreciate and understand the culture of souks, oceans, deserts, and the country’s western-meets-eastern inspired youth.”

“I rode trams and walked through fields of tulips and streets of flaunting bodies in Amsterdam – a place even more free than America,” she laughs, “and I roamed the broken castles, plateaus, and crevasses of the teeny nation of Luxembourg’s capital city.”

Having met many people who teach English in the cities and countries she visited, Saltis has been inspired to begin her post-college career teaching, possibly in Morocco. “I have always been driven to help others; this is the reason for my interest in psychology. I think teaching English as a foreign language to others will fulfill both my need to help others and as my desire to be part of other cultures and learn other languages.”

Upon her return to Cazenovia College, Saltis has expanded upon her thoughts about teaching English as a foreign language. Her internship at a psychiatric hospital, working among criminals with mental illnesses, has cemented a desire to earn a doctoral degree in clinical forensic psychology and plan a career in that field. This desire, however, has not changed her thirst for immersion in other cultures.

“During my travels,” she says, “hundreds of souls have shared their cultures, personalities, and traditions with me, and thousands of small winds have altered the course of my life. As with all my travels, this trip has changed me dramatically. Each country, place, person, and interaction has forever altered who I am. I know now more than ever that happiness does not lie with a big paycheck or in the ink of a diploma naming me a doctor of philosophy. It is the beauty of the world and its people that make everything worthwhile.”

As Greece Avoids a Default, Recapitalization Plans Emerge for European Banks

With the European Commission scheduled on Wednesday to release proposals to recapitalize Europe’s banks, France announced its own detailed plans aimed at protecting its most vulnerable financial institutions.

Alain Juppé, the French foreign minister, told the National Assembly that several leading French banks like BNP Paribas, Crédit Agricole and Société Générale, which are deeply exposed to the sovereign debt of Greece and other Southern European countries, would move to increase their capital reserves, initially by using their own revenue or through the financial markets. Money from the government would be drawn upon only as “a last resort,” he said, according to Reuters.

But Mr. Juppé said that the move, which was agreed upon with Germany during talks on Sunday, meant the banks’ best buffers against losses — so-called core Tier 1 capital — would increase to 9 percent or higher, from 7 percent, by 2013.

It was unclear whether any of that money might be drawn from the proposed euro zone bailout fund rather than directly from French government funds.

The issue is particularly sensitive in France because of fears that the country could lose its triple-A credit rating if it had to inject billions of euros into its banks. That would be a huge political setback for the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, who faces election next year.

The French announcement on intervention came as the euro zone entered a critical countdown, with investors in financial markets expecting a European Union summit meeting on Oct. 23 and the leaders of the Group of 20 leading economies Nov. 3 to endorse major decisions to help resolve the European debt crisis.

Meanwhile, lawmakers in Slovakia voted late Tuesday to reject the expansion of the euro rescue fund. The 440 billion euro, or $601 billion, rescue fund, approved by the 16 other members of the euro currency zone, was entwined with the domestic politics of Slovakia, the small former Soviet bloc country. Officials here in Brussels were weighing the possibility of a different way to circumvent the problem if Slovakia failed to pass the measure.

In Brussels, Jean-Claude Trichet, the departing president of the European Central Bank, underlined the urgent task confronting European leaders, who have consistently failed to rise to the challenge.

“Sovereign stress has moved from smaller economies to some of the larger countries,” Mr. Trichet told European lawmakers. “The crisis is systemic and must be tackled decisively.”

The French bank recapitalization plan was expected to complement proposals from the European Commission, whose president, José Manuel Barroso, said that he would offer proposals Wednesday to protect Europe’s banks from potential losses from the sovereign debt that they hold from Greece, Portugal, Italy and Spain.

Like the French-German plan, the European proposals were likely to emphasize that taxpayer money would be used only as a last resort.

Meanwhile in Athens, there was a breakthrough in negotiations over Greece’s efforts to get its public finances under control to qualify for vital international aid. Representatives from the International Monetary Fund, the European Commission and the European Central Bank said that Greece’s next slice of loans, totaling 8 billion euros, would most likely be disbursed in early November after approval from euro zone finance ministers and the I.M.F.

The statement from the representatives of the so-called troika ended weeks of stalemate between the Greek government and its international lenders, and concluded a period of brinkmanship that intensified last week when European finance ministers postponed a decision on whether to approve the loan.

Now, after lengthy negotiations, the declaration Tuesday paved the way for the release of enough money for Athens to pay its bills and postpone any unplanned default or restructuring of its debts.

The troika will have to submit a full report for approval by euro zone finance ministers, who will gather before the Oct. 23 European summit meeting, and by the I.M.F. board, which is expected to meet in early November.

Stephen Castle reported from Brussels and Niki Kitsantonis from Athens.