Pohaku, a female Hawaiian monk seal battling toxoplasmosis, has died, according to wildlife officials.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, along with The Marine Mammal Center, said Pohaku died on Wednesday after a 10-week battle with toxoplasmosis, a parasitic disease spread through cat feces.
She was in rehabilitation at Ke Kai Ola, a monk seal hospital run by The Marine Mammal Center in Kona, at the time of her death.
“Toxoplasmosis is a complex and deadly disease that requires daily management for an affected Hawaiian monk seal like Pohaku,” said Megan McGinnis, the 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.”
Pohaku, or RO28, was initially picked up from Ko Olina on Oahu in late January after volunteers saw her floating lethargically.
She was later diagnosed with toxoplasmosis, a disease caused by infection with Toxoplasma gondii, a parasite that reproduces in the digestive system of cats. The eggs are released into the environment, including waterways, via cat feces.
For the past six weeks, experts at the center attempted to slow the rate of infection in Pohaku through a series of medical treatments, according to McGinnis. Pohaku had regained some stamina, but continued to lose weight due to a weak appetite.
Following Pohaku’s death, an Oahu-based cultural practitioner with a personal connection to the seal provided a pule, or prayer, via telephone.
The center’s experts also conducted a post-mortem examination, and will send tissue and blood samples to NOAA to confirm an exact cause of death. Tests from those samples could take weeks to months to process.
To help protect endangered Hawaiian monk seals, NOAA asks cat owners to keep the felines indoors and to dispose of cat litter in the trash.
Pohaku survived much longer than other seals that have been diagnosed with toxoplasmosis, according to officials. Only two other seals with toxoplasmosis have been rescued prior to death, and both succumbed to the disease within 48 hours of rescue.
Hawaiian monk seals are a critically endangered species, with only an estimated 1,400 living in the wild. The survival of female monk seals like Pohaku, who gave birth to many pups, are key to their recovery.
Although the monk seal population appears to be holding steady, toxoplasmosis continues to be one of the top three threats for the pinnipeds in the main isles, along with hookings, entanglements and negative human interactions.
Reports of seal sightings and seals in distress can be reported to NOAA’s statewide hotline at 888-256-9840.