Motorists who normally use a busy road in the New Zealand city of Dunedin are, for the next month, playing second fiddle to a sea lion mother and her pup.
In an effort to protect the furry pair, the city council has decided that only bicycles and shoe leather are permitted on John Wilson Drive, which is located between a golf course and a popular beach.
Mom and her little one – called “special residents” in an official Dunedin City Council statement – have taken up residence on the golf course. But, as sea lions are wont to do, they travel regularly to the ocean and must cross the road to do so.
New Zealand sea lions are endangered
“You can still visit the area by foot or bicycle, but please give the sea lions lots of space (at least 20m) … New Zealand sea lions are endangered and one of the rarest sea lion species in the world,” the authorities said.
Dunedin, a South Island city of around 120,000 inhabitants, often shuts roads to accommodate wildlife, but usually only for a day or two at a time.
But residents have come out in support of the new initiative, with some suggesting it should perhaps even be a permanent measure.
Sea lion pups who had been born in the city later return to have their own pups there. They have become a summer fixture since the early 1990s and authorities say they expect around 20 new pups to be born in Dunedin this summer.
Breeding population remains in decline
Māori consider sea lions a taonga [treasured] species.
“According to the Department of Conservation, there are about 12,000 New Zealand sea lions left, and their main breeding population remains in decline, facing threats from fisheries, diseases, food availability and human impact,” the Guardian Australia newspaper reported.
“Before the Covid pandemic, tourists in Dunedin routinely disturbed sea lions sunbathing on local beaches, encroaching on the animal’s habitat for selfies and photographs.”