Sport for tourists:
killing baby seals
Wildlife and animal rights groups have condemned Norway's culling holidays.
It is the ultimate form of extreme holiday 'fun'. Tourists, bored with SAS survival weekends, trekking trips in the Antarctic and booking space flights with Richard Branson, will soon be able to fly to Norway - and shoot baby seals.
The decision to launch the vacations - which have aroused the fury of animal rights groups - follows the recent move by the Norwegian government to expand its annual culling of seals so that amateur enthusiasts can join in.
The aim is to bring about a dramatic increase in the number of deaths of seals, which are blamed by fishermen for devastating drops in the North Sea marine stocks. But the effect has been to outrage conservation groups.
'Killing a baby seal is about the easiest thing you can do if you're inclined to be sadistic; you certainly can't say there's any sport in it - the animal is totally defenceless,' said Paul Watson, founder and president of the radical Sea Shepherd group.
The expansion of Norway's seal cull comes into force in January, following intense lobbying by fishermen, who say the country's large seal population is not only devastating cod and other fish stocks but is infecting other marine life with parasites.
Companies are already offering holidays to both experienced hunters and beginners to take advantage of this relaxation of rules. NorSafari is advertising on the internet for trips that start at 1,400 kroner - about £110 - for a day's hunting and one seal. This rises to 8,200 kroner, or £650, for four days and the guarantee of two seals.
The company's website shows photos of hunters posing with their kill and offers trips that not only include accommodation and food but help with cutting up and preserving seal carcasses. Training is available for beginners, it adds.
Some packages offer a refund to disappointed hunters who don't kill the advertised catch. Extra seals shot will cost another 500 kroner, while another company, Polar Events, advertises: 'We will make sure that your hunt is one not soon forgotten.'
Professional seal hunters have traditionally used clubs to kill seals, but Polar Events' boss, Kjetil Kristoffersen, said tourists would be given rifles to hunt their prey.
Seals have been hunted in Norway for many years and it's part of the culture,' said Kristoffersen. 'We want people who are interested in hunting, not people who just come to shoot the animal... the tradition up here in Norway [is] we hunt the seal to eat it; it's food.'
Animal rights activists and conservation groups fear that helpless baby seals will become the prime, easy targets of tourists. They also warn that seals are in danger of being over-hunted.
Seal hunting has been a tradition in Norway for thousands of years, but has dwindled recently with only about half the annual 1,200 quota being killed each year. Despite this, under pressure from fishermen the quota was raised to more than 2,000 a couple of years ago.
The decision to include tourists in a practice which, until now has been confined to local experts, is designed to help meet that quota.
Announcing the plan, Norway's Fisheries Minister, Svein Ludvigsen, said the move would 'restore the balance' between fish and seals along Norway's coast and claimed that the hunting of seals was no different from hunting moose. Others liken the practice to hunting foxes, big game or even fish and birds. 'This could be a big hit,' added the minister, whose father was a trawler captain.
This optimism is not shared by many others outside Norway, however, and last week the government appeared to be backing down from its enthusiastic endorsement of seal-hunting holidays on its shores. Ministers worry that the move, even if popular with hunters, will damage the country's image for the majority of tourists.
'This is certainly not an image we are keen to be portrayed with,' said Eirik Bergesen, an information adviser for the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, although he stressed that 'for ordinary hunting you can come to Norway and hunt, so what we're doing is actually bringing the rules for seal hunting in accordance with those other hunting laws and guidelines'.
The idea of the holidays was also attacked by the International Fund for Animal Welfare. 'Tourists should be encouraged to enjoy and protect wild animals in their natural habitat rather than kill them,' said spokeswoman Gill Sanders.
Some campaigners have disputed the fishermen's claims that there is a link between seals and the decline in fish stocks. 'That's never been scientifically proven,' added Maren Esmark, marine conservation officer for the Norwegian branch of wildlife charity WWF.
Some argue that over-fishing is the cause of devastated fish stocks. Seals, they point out, have happily coexisted with other marine life for most of their history.
'Our position is more seals, more fish,' said Watson. 'The biggest predator of fish like cod is other fish - and seals keep fish like that in check.'
So far, it is unclear how popular the hunts will prove with visitors, however. Polar Events has had no overseas bookings yet. But the website for NorSafari says 'many of the people we have spoken to would like to come to Norway to go seal hunting. Already there is sufficient interest for us to invite hunters to an exciting hunt.' And the Norwegian Hunting and Fishing Association told Jeger (Hunter) magazine there was expected to be interest abroad, especially from Germany.
Other tasteless trips
Iraq: thrill-seeking travellers visit the war zones
US: trophy-hunters shoot old zoo animals such as lions and elephants, sometimes when they are chained up
Africa: safari hunters compete to shoot the most big game - often including endangered species
Britain: tour company offers the chance to sleep rough like a homeless person
Norway: trippers spend a day whale-watching ... then tuck into whale steak for supper
Faroe Islands: visitors go out in boats to watch local whale hunters
By: Juliette Jowit and Hildegunn Soldal
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