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Kazakh Officials: Abnormally Warm Winter, Early Sea Ice Melt to Blame for Over 800 Seal Deaths

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ASTANA, Kazakhstan -- Kazakh officials have blamed the deaths of more than 800 seals off its Caspian Sea coastline on an abnormally warm winter and the early melting of sea ice.

"The total number of dead seals by late Monday was 819, including 639 adults and 180 pups. A search of the zone is continuing," said a statement on the Kazakh emergency situations ministry website.

Most of the dead Caspian Seals were found in April in the sea's north-eastern Mangistauskaya region near the Kalamkas oil field, the statement said.

Preliminary reports suggested the cause was not pollution but the unusually early ice melt, which disrupted the birthing season, the ministry said.

A similar problem in 2000 resulted in the death of some 20,000 seals, according to a report on the website of the Caspian Environment Programme (CEP), an international body set up to protect the oil-rich inland sea.

Many seal pups died when the ice collapsed, while subsequent overcrowding during the birthing season provoked epidemics killing many more, the report said.

The Caspian Seal is the smallest example of the species, the CEP said, and the only mammal in the Caspian, which is bordered by Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia and Turkmenistan.

The seal's population decreased from about 1.5 million heads a century ago to less than 400,000 in the late 1980s, the CEP said.

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