Imagine discovering a sea lion in the middle of the woods, over a mile inland from the beach. Or come face to face with one of these curious creatures at a local pool or on your porch.
These encounters are happening in New Zealand with the return of the endangered New Zealand sea lion, the rarest sea lion species in the world. Females normally move up to a mile (about 1.5 kilometres) inland with their young during the breeding season to protect them from harsher conditions on the coast – but now there are many more on the way.
Encounters between wild animals and humans can be dangerous for both parties. Sea lions have been stabbed, clubbed, shot and accidentally hit by cars. Roads, fences and residential developments can block their inland movement. Some females and young have adapted to commercial pine forests on private land that may one day be cleared or managed.
As an ecologist, I study species around the world whose populations are recovering after decades or even centuries of immense human pressure and exploitation. Nations are currently gearing up for a historic United Nations conference on protecting the Earth’s biodiversity to be held in China from April 25 to May 8, 2022; An important question is how humans can find a new balance with the recovery of species such as sea lions, sharks and whales, and make room for these resilient creatures to thrive.
Place for the sea lions
Like many other creatures prized for their meat or fur, New Zealand sea lions have been hunted to near extinction. For the past 150 years, remnant populations could only be found on New Zealand’s undeveloped subantarctic islands, more than 300 miles from the country’s mainland. Today, their population is estimated at 12,000.
These animals usually return and breed in the original place where they were born, but in 1993 a female sea lion gave birth on the mainland for the first time in centuries. Since then, her offspring have bred for five generations. Other females followed and around twenty young are now born on the continent each year.
When wildlife species recolonize areas or change their range in this way, scientists can create predictive models to help determine where the animals might settle in the future and take action to protect them. But traditional versions of these models cannot explain when and where recovering species may interact with humans, because these encounters are new developments and may occur under conditions that differ from the past.
In a study published in November 2021, my team and I tackled this problem by creating an integrated database of species distribution models, which combines algorithmic models with expert knowledge to highlight suitable habitats and report areas of concern. Through this, we have found and mapped 395 potential breeding grounds for sea lions across mainland New Zealand. We also identified human-related challenges for the animals, such as roads and fences that could block their movement inland.
Our research can help wildlife managers and local authorities search for sea lions, post road signs for sea lions, verify or restore breeding sites, and determine where to work with them. landowners and raise awareness. This type of tool can help inform similar efforts for other species recovering or moving to new habitats and regions in response to climate change.
Welcoming the whales again
Of course, humans are happier making room for some wildlife species than others.
I researched the Falkland Islands from 2015-2016 and found that residents welcomed the return of sei, fin, minke, southern right and blue whales to local waters. All of these species were hunted extensively beginning in the 1800s, but began to make noticeable returns after nations passed the 1982 moratorium on commercial whaling.
For local residents, seeing whales offshore while herding sheep, riding the ferry or flying from island to island was a special experience. We used residents’ historical knowledge and thousands of whale sightings from the 1940s to 2015 to inform scientific investigations around the islands. This work has helped others analyze the distribution of sei whales around the islands and has resulted in the creation of the world’s first Key Biodiversity Area for sei whales – a place considered to be of global importance for the species. rare, unique or many it contains.
Seeing that Falklands residents enjoyed seeing whales offshore suggested to us that they would support processes such as marine spatial planning to help protect them. Marine spatial planning is a public process to organize human uses of the ocean, such as shipping, tourism, oil exploration and commercial fishing, in a way that balances them with environmental protection.
When predators rebound
Coexistence with some recovering species can be more controversial and difficult to manage, especially if they are perceived as threats to public safety or property.
Along the northeast coast of the United States and into Canada, white sharks were once severely overexploited, but they are now rebounding in response to climate change, conservation efforts and growing seal populations, their favorite prey. As top predators, sharks help control other ocean species and increase carbon storage in the oceans. They are also one of the few shark species known to attack humans.
In recent years, lifeguards have repeatedly closed popular beaches along Cape Cod in Massachusetts when white sharks are present. Warnings and restrictions intensified after a shark killed a swimmer in 2018. Such measures often cause a drop in tourism, but in some places the presence of sharks is slowly becoming an attraction.
Nevertheless, the growing abundance of white sharks is divisive. As shark numbers and sightings increase, scientists and local officials are working to raise awareness and educate the public about them. Monitoring shark movements with drones and other equipment can also help rescuers give swimmers advance warning that sharks are present.
Know who is moving in
Scientists widely agree that the Earth is losing species at a rapid rate, which could represent the sixth mass extinction in its history. In this context, these stories of ongoing species recovery take on new urgency, especially when conflicts arise.
Science can help. Predictive models and maps highlight where species might appear in the future. Monitoring species on the move can reveal their numbers, their behavior, the habitats they prefer and where they can interact with humans.
When wildlife species enter new areas, they will inevitably have to adapt and will often have new types of interactions with humans. These encounters will not always be easy to manage, but I believe that when communities understand the changes and get involved in their planning, they can prepare for the unexpected, thinking about coexistence.
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Veronica Frans, PhD student, University of Michigan
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.