Attackers wielding bats or clubs slaughtered two dozen fur seals, including newborn pups, over several days at one of New Zealand’s most popular sanctuaries for watching the animals, officials said yesterday.
New Zealand government officials condemned the attacks on the protected species as brutal and senseless and vowed to fully prosecute anyone involved.
The New Zealand Department of Conservation said the bludgeoned bodies of 23 fur seals had been found at the Ohau Point colony, a rocky stretch of coastline near a highway that is a breeding ground for the animals.
Officials said eight pups — some just days old — were among those killed and there were likely more juveniles that had died or would soon because their mothers were among those slaughtered.
The condition of the carcasses and the wounds indicated the attackers had returned several times to the scene, possibly for as long as two weeks. The site is at the bottom of a steep, 30m cliff with no easy access and the bodies were only just discovered.
“To go around and club 23 seals to death over a number of days is very deliberate and you have to question the state of mind of someone who can carry out such a cruel and abhorrent attack,” New Zealand Conservation Minister Kate Wilkinson said in a statement.
She appealed for assistance from the public to help track down the attackers.
The colony in the South Island is a popular tourism spot north of the town of Kaikoura, which is an international whale-watching center. It was re-established as a breeding colony two decades ago after the species was nearly wiped out by hunting.
Numbering about 2 million before the arrival of settlers in New Zealand, fur seals were clubbed to death by hunters in the 1800s for their meat and pelts, but the hunts ended because of the drastic drop in their numbers. The midsize seals are also found in Australia and some Antarctic islands.
Oahu Point was only reoccupied for breeding in 1990, and about 600 fur seal pups were born there in 2004, said Bruce Robertson, a seal specialist and senior lecturer in zoology at Otago University.
He said the long-term losses for the population could be dire.
The attacks killed 13 breeding females, which meant 13 pups dependent on their milk would die and fewer pups will be born next year, Robertson said.
“Given this colony is increasing in size, this loss of life is a small setback,” he said yesterday. “However, large mammal populations cannot sustain the repeated loss of breeding females [and] any external influences can be detrimental.”
Other live seals at the colony had been seen with injuries for the attacks, Department of Conservation area manager Dave Hayes said.
“This is a callous and cowardly attack on seals, especially newborn pups, unable to defend themselves against someone striking them with a bat or similar club-like object,” Hayes said.
Under New Zealand law, killing or harming fur seals or other marine mammals incurs up to six months in prison or a fine of up to NZ$250,000 (US$191,000).
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