In search of Kekeno
The picturesque country of New Zealand, known for its abundant natural beauty and being a paradise for birders,is home to a number of exotic endangered species. One of them is the adorable-looking fur seal or Kekeno. In this story the writer shares his experience about observing the seals,their peculiar characteristics and the threats that they faced in the past.
The ‘land at the end of the world’ as it is famously called; New Zealand often makes it to the must-visit list of anyone who enjoys wildlife, photography,untamed landscapes, adventure, etc.When I got the opportunity to explore this country,the first step I took was to make a list of all the places where I could document and photograph the country’s endangered and endemic species. Topping my list was the marine mammal, the New Zealand fur seal, due to the number of fun facts that I read up about the animal.
‘EAR’ ME OUT
Going by the name of Kekeno in the local Maori language, New Zealand fur seals are distributed on the rocky coastlines of New Zealand’s main islands– Chatham Islands and the Sub-Antarctic Islands.
They are easily identifiable with their pointy nose,long whiskers, hind flippers that rotate forward, and the highly conspicuous external ears. The ears are of significance as Kekeno is one of the two species belonging to the group of eared (Otariidae) seals that breed in New Zealand’s waters, the other being the New Zealand sea lion (Phocarctos hookeri).
PREYING ON PENGUINS
Feeding close to the surface in shallow water. The Kekeno’s diet usually includes aquatic species such as arrow squid, octopus, barracuda, conger eels,jade mackerel and hoki that are procured mostly off the continental shelf. Night time is the preferred time of the day to feed for these marine mammals. This is mainly because the Kekeno it isn’t easily spotted in the dark compared to during day time when the prey species identify the predator and move further towards the surface bed.
These seals have also been documented feeding on penguins. While the fur seals were hunted by the Maori’s previously, their falling numbers today makes them a strong natural predator to the penguins.
LONG LIVE THE SEALS
The seals breed from late October to early February.The adult males arrive first and establish territories at the breeding colonies. Arriving after in late November after foraging, the female gives birth to a single pup by early January. The female then remains in the rookeries till August. Pups are weaned in July or August and the pregnant females of the fur seals go to sea to fatten once again. The first 300 days are the toughest for its survival, with pup mortality at approximately 40%
Seals were led to the brink of extinction in the 1800s due to their hunting for food by the Polynesians and consuming seals as meals by Europeans.It is now protected due to the amendments brought about in laws such as the New Zealand’s Marine Mammals Protection Act. It is, also, finally illegal to hunt New Zealand fur seals. In recent years, the population has increased drastically and as of today, it has been included as Least Concern category in the IUCN list.
This article first appeared in the March-May 2016 edition of Saevus magazine.