‘Looks after’ a new generation of endangered sea lions in New Zealand

(CNN) – Like many teenagers, 17-year-old Hannah Yeardley, who lives in Dunedin, New Zealand, takes care of the children in her spare time. The only difference is that she does not look after children, but baby sea lions.

From December to February, during the breeding season and when newborns are most vulnerable, Yeardley roams the white sands of Long Beach on weekends and school holidays, checking on sea lion families nesting in the area. She volunteers for the New Zealand Sea Lion Foundation, an organization dedicated to protecting endangered species.

Around the Otago Peninsula on New Zealand’s South Island, sea lions live shoulder to shoulder with their human neighbors. Local residents act as “nannies” to help ensure the safety of newborn puppies.

Her favorite sea lion is Zoya, a female about the same age as her, with a dark spot around her eyes and a distinctive comb shape on her fin.

“She just turned 17,” says Yeardley, whose birthday was in March. “It’s great to see her every year and go on this journey with her, (watching her) have puppies.”

It has been a lean year for sea lions on the Otago Peninsula, the finger of land that juts out of Dunedin’s urban suburbs into the Pacific Ocean and is home to the largest population of sea lions on the New Zealand mainland, according to the Department of the Country. conservation. 21 pups were born, making this the most successful breeding season for an endangered species in nearly 200 years.

Sea lions are returning to the New Zealand mainland after near extinction.

PAUL ELLIS/AFP via Getty Images

Nanny Hannah Yeardley hopes that by caring for New Zealand sea lions, she will help increase their population.

Nanny Hannah Yeardley hopes that by caring for New Zealand sea lions, she will help increase their population.

Caitlin McGee/CNN

Sea lions thrived along the coast of New Zealand until commercial hunting, which began in the early 19th century and continued into the mid-20th century, led to the extinction of the animals. The remnants of the population survived hundreds of miles south on subantarctic islands such as the Auckland Islands and Campbell Island, where most breeding still takes place.

Then, in the early 1990s, a single, adventurous female traveled back to the mainland and gave birth to a pup on St. Clair Beach. She became known as “Mama” and statue of her now stands proudly on the esplanade above St. Clair.

“This female was responsible for the return of the sea lion population to Otago,” says Jim Fife, New Zealand Department of Conservation’s Coastal Otago Biodiversity Ranger.

Luckily, Mom’s first three puppies were females, which gave the population a good start, Fife explains. “By 2000 we had two or three puppies, then by 2010 we had six to eight puppies, and in the last few years we had 18 to 20 puppies. exponential curve at the bottom of population growth,” he says.

But sea lions have returned to a very different habitat than they did 200 years ago – roads, cars, motorcycles, people, dogs and all sorts of potential dangers now abound in the region. This creates huge problems in maintaining the health and happiness of the population.

Sea lions are smelly neighbors

Eager to seek shelter from adult male sea lions that weigh up to a hefty 450 kilograms and have been known to trample the young in search of a mate – mothers often head inland to nest, but this only brings them closer to human threats.

According to Fife, they have been found nesting in backyards, dog kennels, outbuildings and the local golf course, sometimes causing trouble for human neighbors. He recalls one young woman who slept under the house for about three months until the owners got tired and evicted her because “the house got a little smelly.”

“Their nocturnal habits of coming in at 2am and mooing their puppies can make them annoying neighbors,” he adds.

But for all their bad habits, sea lions are in mortal danger. This year, a three-month-old sea lion cub was hit by a car on an Otago Peninsula road, and motorcycle tracks were recently spotted near a popular “nursery” where many female sea lions and their cubs have taken up residence.

The Department of Conservation and the New Zealand Sea Lion Foundation, with their army of nannies like Yardley, are trying to deal with these threats. Organizations track females and their young by cordoning off areas where they may nest and posting signs warning passers-by to keep all dogs on a leash. Sometimes, if sea lions decide to nest in an unprotected area, Fife and his team create a simple shelter to protect the cubs, and last year they road closed in Dunedin for a month to ensure the safety of the sea lion family.

“The seasonal breeding cycle is a critical time for (sea lions),” Fife says. “We ask people to be patient, this is not forever.”

But as the sea lion population continues to grow, this personalized service may become less viable. Instead, Fife hopes technology will provide a solution. He was involved in research projectpublished last year, which uses algorithm-based models and GIS mapping to identify critical habitats and can help rangers prioritize areas for protection.

“Actually, they’re not going to bite you”

Ultimately, one of the simplest solutions to protecting sea lions from human threats is teaching people how to respond to them.

“If people get too close to the sea lions when they are active, the sea lions have a bluff attack…and people tend to turn on their heels and run away,” Fife says. “Running is wrong. They are not actually going to bite you – 99 times out of 100 they will stop and sniff you. So just try to stay calm and keep moving out of the area.”

Fife hopes that as locals get used to the presence of sea lions on their beaches and around their homes, they will learn to coexist. “People don’t need to be afraid, they are not aggressive animals,” he says. “They are more playful and curious.”

Fortunately, raising awareness and interest in animals is easy. “They’re their own best marketing tool (because) they’re really cute overall,” he adds.

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