A New Zealand teenager looks after endangered sea lions

Dubai, United Arab Emirates (CNN) – Like many teenagers, Hannah Yeardley (17) from Dunedin, southern New Zealand, cares for sea lions, not human babies, in her spare time.

During weekends and school holidays, Yeardley roams the white sandy Long Beach, where newborns are most vulnerable, during the breeding season between December and February, to check on the safety of the sea lion families living in the area. , as a volunteer. with the “New Zealand Sea Lion Trust”, which is concerned with the protection of endangered species.

Hannah Yeardley, plain_textCredit: Caitlin McGee / CNN

Her favorite sea lioness is Zoe. She “turned 17” in March, Yeardley told CNN, noting that it was “fantastic to see her again every year, by going through her labor and seeing how she gives birth.”

In New Zealand, endangered sea lions
Credit: PAUL ELLIS / AFP via Getty Images

It was a fruitful year for the sea lions of the Otago Peninsula, which connects the interior with the outskirts of Dunedin and from there enters the Pacific Ocean and is home to the largest number of sea lions on the mainland of New Zealand, according to the state department. of Preservation. And 21 young were born, making it the most successful breeding season for an endangered species in almost 200 years.

In New Zealand, endangered sea lions
Credit: Kylie Evans

Sea lions flourished along the New Zealand coast until commercial hunting began in the early nineteenth century, which continued until the middle of the twentieth century, almost causing the extinction of these animals. The natives who live hundreds of miles south on sub-Antarctic islands, such as the Auckland Islands and Campbell Island, have survived, where the majority of sea lion breeding still takes place today.

In New Zealand, endangered sea lions
Credit: Janet Ledingham / Dunedin

Then, in the early 1990s, a lone female sailed back to the mainland, where she gave birth to a puppy on St Clair’s Beach. She became known as “Mom” and a statue of her now stands proudly in the middle of a courtyard overlooking the beach.

In New Zealand, endangered sea lions
Credit: John Burke

“This female was responsible for bringing a group of sea lions back to Otago,” said Jim Fife, Coastal Biodiversity Conservation Officer, New Zealand’s Department of Conservation, Otago.

Fortunately, my mother’s puppies were female, which was a great start for this community, Fife said. He explained: “By the year 2000 we will have one or three puppies, to increase the number to between six and eight cubs by 2010, and to reach the number of puppies born in the last few years between 18 and 20 sea lion cubs . “

In New Zealand, endangered sea lions
Credit: Ben Foley / CNN

But sea lions are back in a completely different habitat than they were 200 years ago. Roads, cars, motorcycles, people, dogs and all sorts of potential dangers abound in the area. It presents great challenges to maintain the health and happiness of this species.

Sea lions have a bad smell

In New Zealand, endangered sea lions
Credit: John Burke

Mothers are eager to protect the pups from adult sea lions weighing up to 450 kilograms, which can trample the pups in search of a mate, mothers often seek shelter inside to suckle their pups, but this exposes them to human threats.

Fife said he found them nesting in backyards, kennels, outbuildings and the local golf course, sometimes causing problems with human neighbors. He remembered when she slept under a house for about three months, until his owners got fed up with her because “the house smelled bad”.

He added that “the nocturnal habits of sea lions, which have to check their young at two o’clock in the morning, and the noises they make, cause them to be disturbed.”

In New Zealand, endangered sea lions
Credit: John Burke

But despite all their bad habits, sea lions are in mortal danger. This year, a three-month-old sea lion was hit and killed by a vehicle on the Otago Peninsula Road, and the last motorcycle tracks were spotted near a popular “nursery” area where sea lions and their young mothers settled.

In New Zealand, endangered sea lions
Credit: John Burke

The Department of Conservation and the New Zealand Sea Trust, along with a group of “caretakers” such as Yeardley, are trying to manage these threats. Organizations track females and their young, close off areas where they can nest, put up signs warning passers-by and tell them to keep all dogs in front. And if the sea lions choose to nest in an open area, Five and his team will create a simple shelter to help protect the young. They even closed a road in Dunedin for a month last year to keep sea lion beds safe.

“The seasonal breeding cycle is a delicate stage for sea lions,” Fyfe pointed out, adding that “what we ask of people is to be patient, because it is not permanent.”

But as sea lion numbers continue to grow, this personal service may become less viable. Five rather hope that technology will provide a solution. He was involved in a research project published last year that uses algorithm-based models and GIS mapping to identify critical habitats and help rangers prioritize protected areas.

“It will not actually bite you.”

Educating people on how to respond to sea lions is one of the simplest solutions to protect them from human threats.

Fife advised that “when you get too close to sea lions during the breeding season, sea lions can attack people who tend to run away.” He explained: “Running is the wrong thing to do because it will not actually bite you, but in 99% of cases it will stop and sniff you. So just try to stay calm, and get away from the place.”

Fortunately, Fife concluded, it is not difficult to cultivate awareness and interest in the animal, noting that it is “the best marketing tool for them, as they are generally very cute animals”.

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