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Hawaiian Monk Seal at Ke Kai Ola Mammal Center Dies

April 2, 2020, 2:14 PM HST
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US Guard transported a sick Hawaiian Monk Seal to Kona’s marine mammal hospital, Ke Kai Ola. (PC: US Coast Guard)

A Hawaiian monk seal being treated at Kona’s marine mammal hospital died this week.

RO28, also known as Pōhaku, was brought to Ke Kai Ola Marine Mammal Center after after she was found sick on O‘ahu with toxoplasmosis, a parasitic disease found in cat feces. After a 10-week battle, the animal died on April 1.

“Toxoplasmosis is a complex and deadly disease that requires daily management for an affected Hawaiian monk seal like Pōhaku,” says Megan McGinnis, The Marine Mammal Center’s Animal Care Program Manager at Ke Kai Ola. “While all of us are deeply saddened about this unfortunate outcome, the valuable insight gained about how this deadly disease affects monk seals will have a positive impact on future patients.”

The Hawaiian monk seal is a critically endangered species. Toxoplasmosis killed at least 11 monk seals in the last two decades. In 2018, three Hawaiian monk seals on Oʻahu were found dead from the disease within a single week. This year, two seals impacted by toxoplasmosis were rescued prior to death and both succumbed to the disease within 48 hours of rescue.

Shortly after NOAA rescued Pōhaku, officials say, a young male monk seal (RKC1) was found dead on the windward side of Oʻahu. Results of the postmortem examination showed that he died after being exposed to toxoplasmosis.

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For the past six weeks, experts at The Marine Mammal Center administered a series of medical treatments to Pōhaku to try to slow the rate of infection. During that time, McGinnis said, Pōhaku regained some stamina and movement but continued to lose weight due to a minimal appetite.

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“Following the animal’s death Wednesday, an Oahu-based cultural practitioner with a personal connection to Pōhaku provided a pule via telephone, and a post-mortem examination was conducted by the Center’s experts,” McGinnis said.

Tissue and blood samples are in the process of being sent to NOAA for further examination to confirm an exact cause of death. Those results could take weeks to months to process.

Along with negative human interaction and fisheries interaction via hooking and entanglements, toxoplasmosis is one of the main threats facing the endangered Hawaiian monk seal population on the main Hawaiian Islands. This is due in part to the infection being difficult to detect.

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With no vaccine available for toxoplasmosis, preventative measures must be taken by the general public. This disease is spread into the environment exclusively via cat feces. To help protect endangered Hawaiian monk seals like Pōhaku from toxoplasmosis, dispose of cat litter in the trash, keep cats safe indoors and inform community on ways to prevent this disease from harming more marine mammals.

Pōhaku was rescued on O‘ahu on Jan. 22 by NOAA’s trained experts after displaying lethargic behavior. The animal was brought to NOAA’s Inouye Regional Center in Honolulu for assessment and treatment. NOAA experts diagnosed the seal with toxoplasmosis and a wounded left front flipper. The animal was also later diagnosed with a corneal ulcer in its right eye.

Pōhaku was airlifted and transferred to The Marine Mammal Center’s Kailua-Kona based hospital for Hawaiian monk seals, Ke Kai Ola, via the U.S. Coast Guard, for further rehabilitation on Feb. 19.

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