Region's wildlife: rules of engagement

A slumbering sea lion joins Christmas Day holidaymakers for an after-lunch siesta on St Clair...
A slumbering sea lion joins Christmas Day holidaymakers for an after-lunch siesta on St Clair Beach in 2007. Photo from ODT files.

People and wildlife do not always mix. Otago beaches are a magnet for people in the summer holidays, but Rebecca Fox warns we should tread carefully.


There is a strong possibility anyone who visits an Otago beach this summer will encounter some of the region's special wildlife.

It does not matter whether it is a busy city beach or the more remote Otago Peninsula beaches: a yellow-eyed penguin, sea lion or seal could easily be taking a rest.

Recent cases where wildlife has been killed or injured in Otago, Southland and Kaikoura by people and dogs have highlighted the extreme end of what can go wrong when people and wildlife mix.

While calls to the Department of Conservation's Coastal Otago office have not increased, the Otago Daily Times has heard of situations where people have approached wildlife and hit or annoyed it unnecessarily.

However, Department of Conservation biodiversity assets programme manager David Agnew said most people respected and valued what was a huge asset to the region.

''There is only the occasional person who does not know how to behave,'' Mr Agnew said.

The basic message was to give the wildlife space and keep dogs on leashes, he said.

''It doesn't matter where it is around here; vulnerable wildlife can turn up on any beach. You cannot take for granted there isn't a yellow-eyed penguin on the beach.''

Dunedin's popular and often packed city beaches at St Clair and St Kilda were often just as popular with the odd sea lion, penguin or even leopard seal.

''They're very vulnerable and susceptible to dogs and if we judge them to be in danger we'll move them on to safer areas.''

Doc appreciated those people who kept an eye on the wildlife in their neighbourhood and reported any problems or issues, he said.

''At St Clair, dog owners that use the beach inform each other if they see anything on it. They value the wildlife in their back yard.''

While sea lions and fur seals were large enough to get to the water and out of the way of a dog, smaller, less mobile animals such as penguins and shags were not as ''quick on their feet'' and ''usually a dog attack is fatal for these''.

''People need to be extra vigilant with dogs not to let them off the leash unless they know they don't pose a risk.''

Similar encounters could be had by those who used the water recreationally, such as surfers, kayakers and anglers.

Some people who had had a negative experience in the past with wildlife, often did not view it favourably, he said.

But there were simple rules to follow: try not to engage the animals, don't make eye contact or make sudden moves, and if the animals did not lose interest, people should get out of the water for a time, he said.

It was important for people to remember these species were protected and sea lions' threat rating had been increased to critically endangered; the same threat level as Maui's dolphins.

''It's good people bear that in mind.''

People faced stiff penalties, including jail time and fines, if found guilty of killing or injuring protected marine wildlife.

The maximum penalty for killing protected wildlife was a $100,000 fine and/or up to a year's imprisonment.

The other risk facing wildlife was from fire in Doc reserves.

People needed to be extra vigilant about sticking to the fire season and keeping an eye out for fire in those places, he said.

If people had any concerns about wildlife or others' behaviour around it, they should call Doc on 0800-362-468.

- rebecca.fox@odt.co.nz

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