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Why is Dunedin the wildlife capital of NZ?

The topic of our native and particularly endemic wildlife in New Zealand, and Dunedin is a passion close to my heart.  I think you will find that many local Dunedin people feel the same way that I do, we recognise the precious taonga that we are surrounded by, and increasingly we are feeling a need to protect, care for and nurture these remarkable animals that made their lives here long before humans walked on our shores.  This blog is also timed to promote the upcoming ‘Wild Dunedin – New Zealand Festival of Nature‘, that runs from 22 – 28 April 2019.  

Let’s find out some of the reasons that two of the most well known and passionate naturalists in the world used these words to describe our environment – ” Otago Peninsula and Taiaroa Head is a unique and very special place. It is a place that every visitor to Dunedin should see” – Sir David Attenborough. ” In my opinion the Otago Peninsula is the finest example of eco-tourism in the world” Professor David Bellamy.

The Northern Royal Albatross/Toroa

We have so many taonga to choose from, it really is a question of where to start?  But I think starting with this magnificent sea bird is the place – the Northern Royal Albatross or Toroa.  This largest of all sea birds spends it’s entire life at sea, only returning to land to breed.  And the Otago Peninsula, and specifically Taiaroa Head is the only mainland breeding colony in the world.

Yes, you can visit, observe and learn more about this at risk species by visiting the Royal Albatross Centre.  Birds mate for life and return to raise one chick every year between them.  Due to various challenges human intervention has proved to be necessary.   Chicks are carefully monitored and assisted with the least amount of stress as possible to enable them to continue spreading their enormous wing span of over three metres around the world.  Follow the drama, often hilarity and sometimes tragedy of the albatross breeding season on the Department of Conservations Royal Cam.

The Yellow-Eyed Penguin/Hoiho (photo credit: Shaun Templeton).

Yellow Eyed Penguin/Hoiho and Little Blue Penguin/Kororā

I haven’t met many people that don’t find these quirky birds endearing.  Perhaps it is the comical way in which they waddle to and from the ocean on a daily basis, or the soap opera style lives they lead when it comes to finding, securing and keeping a mate!  Either way, I have no doubt that you will fall in love with either the Yellow Eyed Penguin/Hoiho and the world’s smallest penguin the Little Blue Penguin/Kororā, both of which can be found and observed on the Otago Peninsula.  Sadly, both species are threatened and at risk but the people of Dunedin don’t just sit idly by.  Initiatives like Penguin Place, a private conservation area rely solely on their tours to fund the conservation of the Yellow Eyed – including restoration of habitat, predator control and a rehabilitation centre for sick and injured birds.

An adult male and two juvenile male NZ Sealions, previously known as the Hooker’s Sea Lion.

 

New Zealand Fur Seal/Kekeno & New Zealand sea lion / rāpoka / whakahao

The New Zealand Fur Seal is sometimes mistaken for its larger neighbour the New Zealand Sea Lion, but there are some distinct differences that will help you identify which is which:

1. The fur seal is found in abundance all around the Otago peninsula, the sea lion is endangered with an albeit increasing, but much smaller population.

2.  The fur seal is distinctly smaller than the sea lion.

3.  Both male and female fur seals have a pointy nose unlike the sea lion.

4.  Seals prefer rocky outcrops to sunbathe, whereas sealions will often be seen lying on one of Dunedin’s many sandy beaches.

Recently there have been instances of the public attempting to interact with these animals, so if you are visiting Dunedin please take the time to read here about why you must leave them be, and tips on how to deal with an encounter with a sea lion. 

New Zealand Marine Studies Centre

It should come as no surprise, given that we live right on the doorstep of the South Pacific Ocean and that we are home to New Zealand’s first university, that we have a marine studies centre.  The New Zealand Marine Studies Centre is located at Portobello, a beautiful 20 minute drive from Dunedin city.

The University of Otago uses this as their practical base to conduct research, but also as a way to showcase local marine life and to educate.  The centre is no longer open to the public but during the ‘Wild Dunedin – New Zealand Festival of Nature‘, there are sessions open to the public where you can join a marine scientist to find out about marine food webs and who eats what in the ocean in ‘Wild Food Webs and Fishy Feasts.’ 

The reintroduction of Kaka at Orokonui Ecosanctuary is believed to be the first to the South Island mainland.

Orokonui Ecosanctuary

Across the harbour from the Otago Peninsula is another remarkable, locally led conservation project – the Orokonui Ecosanctuary.  Over 300 hectares of native New Zealand bush has been eradicated of predators and due to a predator proof fence is now home to an ever increasing population of native NZ birds, reptiles and plants.

The Ecosanctuary really is an example of what happens when a idea becomes a plan, and that plan becomes a reality.  Walking inside the gates of this impressive project feels very much like stepping back in time to what New Zealand would have been like prior to the arrival of humans.  Tui, Bellebird, Kaka, Takahe and Kiwi are some of the many birds who have been brought to live within this sanctuary and their numbers are on the up.

If you want to get up close and personal with NZ native birds, on their terms, this place is a must.  Plus, you’ll find a cafe, gift shop and plenty of educational resources available.  If you’re interested in finding out just what bird you are listening to, I found this fabulous resource from DOC that provides audio for some of the songs and calls of New Zealand birds.

This little guy was plucking his feathers out around a wound site, so staff decided a onesie would provide the solution to that problem, and it did!

The Wildlife Hospital

We have a Wildlife Hospital, and if that isn’t testament enough to our claims regarding being the wildlife capital, I don’t know what is.  I have not visited the hospital, so have taken this description from their website:

“The Wildlife Hospital is a partnership with Otago Polytechnic, and its School of Veterinary Nursing.  We’re also collaborating with many other organisations across the community, to create opportunities for education, training and research.

Before the hospital opened, sick or injured endangered species were flown to the North Island for treatment – a journey that seriously reduced their chances of pulling through. Animals that aren’t endangered were left to either fight for themselves, or were euthanased.

A quick, local response, maximises the survival rates of all native wildlife. Ultimately, we’ll be increasing animal populations right across the lower South Island.

Up to 80% of the native species in New Zealand are now under threat of extinction, and while there are many great initiatives to reduce predators and increase safe havens for these animals, there is a pressing need to save every single one we can – right now.  As habitats are slowly recovered, we need to make sure the animals are still in existence to populate them.”

A Southern Right Whale mother and calf. Photo courtesy of Steve Dawson from the University of Otago.

Southern Right Whale

When early settlers arrived in Otago they were kept awake at night by the noise created by Southern Right Whales who used the harbour as a natural nursery to safely birth their young. The name ‘right’ whale was given by the whalers who came here to hunt them as they were so easy to kill.  Our history with this beautiful animal is a very sad one, at one stage the population of this species due to commercial whaling operations was down to a couple of hundred animals – thankfully now that number is in the thousands.

As the whale population increases, so do sightings around Otago.  What used to be rare is now more common place as the animals take up their natural migratory routes and return to their ‘rightful’ (excuse the pun) place.  University of Otago researchers have been studying the population that lives near the Auckland Islands and this will no doubt continue to assist in understanding and protecting this recovering population.

Dunedin, Otago Peninsula & harbour

Well, there we have it, and there is so much more to say on this topic that I may have to revisit it!  I haven’t even mentioned the thousands of sea birds that nest along our rocky coastlines, the orca and dolphins that frequent our harbour, literally stopping traffic as people pull over in their vehicles trying to take a picture.  Take a look at the ‘Wild Dunedin – NZ Festival of Nature’ programme and see all the opportunities to immerse, educate and engage yourself in.   Ultimately in doing so you will help protect our precious taonga and we will be able to continue to call Dunedin, the Wildlife Capital of New Zealand.

Nicky Richardson is an International Marketing Coordinator at the University of Otago. With degrees in music and marketing, she is a recent graduate of Otago herself – she loves Otago so much she ended up getting a job here!

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