When endangered species recover, humans may need to make room for them

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These encounters take place in New Zealand with the return of the endangered New Zealand sea lion, the rarest sea lion in the world. Females normally move up to a mile (about 1.5 kilometers) inland with their young during the breeding season to protect them from the harsher conditions on the coast. But now there are a lot more humans 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 development can block their movement inland. Some females and cubs 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, if not centuries, of immense human pressure and exploitation. Nations are now preparing for a historic United Nations conference on the protection of 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 recovering species, such as sea lions, sharks and whales, and make space for these resilient creatures to thrive.

Make way for sea lions

Like many other creatures valued for their meat or fur, New Zealand sea lions have historically been hunted to near extinction. For the past 150 years, the remaining populations could only be found on the undeveloped subantarctic islands of New Zealand, more than 300 miles from the mainland. Today, their population is estimated at 12,000.

These animals usually return and breed in the place of origin where they were born; but in 1993, a female sea lion gave birth on the mainland for the first time in centuries. Since then, his offspring has reproduced for five generations. Other females followed and around twenty puppies are now born on the continent each year.

When wildlife recolonizes areas or changes their ranges in this way, scientists can create predictive models to help determine where 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, as these encounters are new developments and may occur under different conditions from the past.

In a study published in November 2021, my team and I tackled this problem by creating an integrated species distribution model database, which combines algorithmic models with expert knowledge to highlight suitable habitats and report areas of concern. Thanks to him, we found and mapped 395 potential breeding areas for sea lions across the New Zealand mainland. We have also identified human-related challenges for 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, put up sea lion crossing signs on roads, check or restore breeding sites, and determine where to work with owners. land to raise public awareness. This type of tool can help inform similar efforts for other species that are recovering or moving to new habitats and regions in response to climate change.

The return of the whales

Of course, humans are happier to make room for some wildlife than others.

I researched the Falkland Islands from 2015 to 2016 and found that residents rejoiced with the return of fin whales, fin whales, minke whales, southern right whales and blue whales to local waters. . All of these species were hunted intensively from the 1800s onwards, but began to make a notable comeback after countries adopted the 1982 moratorium on commercial whaling.

For the local residents, seeing whales offshore while tending the sheep, taking 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 islands and resulted in the creation of the world’s first Key Biodiversity Area for Sei Whales, a location considered globally important for sei whales. rare, unique or numerous species it contains.

The discovery that the residents of Falkland 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 of organizing human uses of the ocean, such as navigation, tourism, oil exploration, and commercial fishing, in a way that balances them with environmental protection.

The return of white sharks to Cape Cod has led to beach closures and alarms, but has also boosted tourism in some towns. [Photo: David L. Ryan/The Boston Globe/Getty Images]

When predators bounce back

Coexistence with some recovering species can be more controversial and tricky to manage, especially if they are perceived to be a threat to public safety or property.

Along the northeastern coast of the United States and all the way to Canada, white sharks were once severely overexploited, but are now rebounding in response to climate change, protection efforts, and growing populations of seals, their favorite prey. . As top predators, sharks help control other ocean species and increase ocean carbon storage. But they’re also one of the few shark species known to attack humans.

Science can help. Predictive models and maps highlight where species may appear in the future. Monitoring species on the move can reveal their numbers, behavior, preferred habitats, and places where they can interact with humans.

When wildlife enter new areas, they will inevitably have to adapt and often have new types of interactions with humans. These meetings will not always be easy to manage, but I think that when communities understand the changes and get involved in their planning, they can prepare for the unexpected, for the sake of coexistence.


Veronica Frans is a doctoral student, at University of Michigan.



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