The second largest city on New Zealand’s South Island has closed a popular road for an entire month in order for a sea lion to nest safely with its pup.
Dunedin City council said in a Facebook post it would close John Wilson Drive above the city’s St Claire beach for a month to allow “some special residents to use the road safely”.
“A New Zealand sea lion and her pup have taken up residence at the golf course next door and are regularly crossing the road to get to the beach,” the council said.
“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 harbour city, home to 120,000 people, regularly shuts roads during the summer months to allow wildlife to cross safely, but typically only for a day or two at most.
The month-long closure has been applauded by locals, many of whom urged the council the make it permanent to protect vulnerable wildlife.
Sea lions are threatened in New Zealand and are often attacked by dogs or chase humans if they get too close.
The animals, which can weigh up to 200kg, have been giving birth in and around Dunedin since 1993, and since protection efforts have ramped up – both official and otherwise – the sea lion breeding season has become a fixture of the summer months, with at least 20 pups expected in the city this year.
Pups who had been born in the city later return to have their own pups there, and have been found giving birth in paddocks, farm sheds, and beside motorways.
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.
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.
Māori consider sea lions a taonga (treasured) species.
In 2019 a former council candidate drew the ire of national and international media when he stabbed a sea lion with a hunting spear, calling the animal “berserk” and “dangerous” after it followed him in the water.