Pakake — fighting to save Aotearoa New Zealand’s endangered sea lions

By Niamh Peren

Urban Systems Lab
Resilience Quarterly
5 min readNov 16, 2021


Cannibal Bay is a black sand beach located in the wild and remote Catlins of Aotearoa (New Zealand). It was here, as I was whipped senseless by chilly Antarctic blasts, surrounded by petrified bush, that I witnessed a very rare and special sight, a small pakake population recolonising their space, and consequently, an ecosystem restoring herself.

Niamh Peren

In te reo Māori (the language of Māori), pakake describes all sea lions, kake refers to female sea lions, and whakahao male sea lions. Kake means ‘to climb,’ which resonates with the action females take as they scale the dunes to birth their pups. Whakahao means ‘to scoop’, referencing the strength in their movement on land and in the water. Pakake are of special significance to te iwi Māori.

Ngāi Tahu are the iwi (tribe) of most of Te Waipounamu (South Island) from the Clarence River south; where the pakake reside today. Ngāi Tahu have a strong affiliation with pakake, highlighted by their whakatauki (proverb), Ko te whakahao te hoa kakari o Te Wera A male sea lion was the only thing that frightened Te Wera (Chief). Pakake are so valuable to Ngāi Tahu, they are a listed taonga species (a treasure).

Pakake are alternatively known as the New Zealand Sea Lion and the Hooker Sea Lion (Phocarctos hookeri) after Sir Joseph Hooker who was a Botanist on the British expedition to the Antarctic in 1839–43 (Hooker became aware of pakake long after te iwi Māori, whose arrival long pre-dated Pākeha — white settlers).

Pakake are the rarest, most endangered, sea lion in the world. Although once found in abundance along the coastlines of Aotearoa, since 2015, they have been highlighted on the the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List. With merely 31 breeding age kake left in Aotearoa’s waters, the future of their population is fragile. It’s a very desperate situation for the powerful pakake. For them, the stakes are high, extinction is a very real possibility.

Niamh Peren

Pakake’s return to Aotearoa’s sandy beaches is therefore of the utmost significance to both te iwi Māori and the British Crown.

Pakake’s disappearance from Aotearoa’s coast is owed to colonisation; highlighting the extremity of ecological damage caused. Humankind is still the epicentre of this mammal’s tragedy. In recent years multiple cases of individuals shooting, ramming their vehicles, and simply creating an emotionally stressful environment, causing the mammals to miscarry, and even starve have been recorded.

The Te Tiriti o Waitangi Partnership “is one of the primary mechanisms enabling Ngāi Tahu whānui to exercise its inherent tribal rights and interests as rangatira (leaders) and kaitiaki (guardians of the living world) over conservation lands and taonga (treasured) species.” In the words of Darren Rewi who is tangata whenua (people of the land), “we take our role of kaitiaki very seriously.”

In this small, isolated, and sparse community tucked away at the bottom of the world, a very important conversation is being had about deserved endangered species management. This conversation will become even more pronounced in the very near future. Come June 2022, Clutha Council will commence a Working Group to determine whether or not their local government ought to introduce a bylaw preventing vehicle traffic from screaming along Cannibal Bay.

Beaches in Aotearoa are classified as legal roads. The vehicle entrance to Cannibal Bay is located near the dunes; the nesting grounds of the pakake. Due to the beach being part of the Queen’s Chain, vehicle access is legal all year round, including breeding andnesting seasons.

Jim Fyfe, a Senior Ranger for the Department of Conservation shared instances of pakake being taunted and harmed in the area; “the most obvious vehicle impact is when sea lions get rammed and we suspect 2 cases of this in the Catlins. There are many more reports of disturbance with the worst cases being motorbikes circling sea lions to get a response from them. Despite the disturbance, sea lions continue to use beaches where vehicles are occasionally a problem.” The tire marks left on the sand maintain the memory of trauma.

Beaches in neighbouring regions like Ōtepoti (Dunedin) have implemented a beach by-law preventing non-emergency-vehicle access to protect their pakake populations.

During the Fall 2021 semester, I penned a research paper titled ‘The British Crown’s Deliberate Mismanagement of Pakake’ for my Graduate Strategic Design & Management New Economies Class which demonstrated that the British Crown had intentionally exploited and misused their power in regard to the possible protection of this endangered taonga species.

The British Crown, embodied by Central Government and Local Government in Aotearoa New Zealand, has rendered herself incapable and ineffective in her duty to coordinate and manage the livelihood of our threatened pakake. Subsequently, her deliberate inaction toward pakake, has afforded those most disadvantaged by the situation, pakake, an unfavourably poor livelihood and future. From here on, te iwi Māori ought to be given the opportunity to be the primary carers for pakake. Although the British Crown has not accounted for the costs of her mismanagement, this paper attempted to illustrate such costs and affiliated values (fiscal or intrinsic).

Niamh Peren

With the upcoming Working Group, Clutha Council has the ability to change the narrative and create positive impact by implementing a non-emergency vehicle access bylaw at Cannibal Bay to make for a climate resilient and caring future for the pakake and their surrounding ecosystem of life. Let’s ensure this space can safely be their home,a refuge for this fragile population to recolonise. These endangered species ought to have the opportunity to grow

In the words of Darren Rewi,

Me mahi tahi tatou, mo te oranga o te katoa.
We should work together for the wellbeing of everyone.

Niamh Peren grew up in the mountains of Central Otago, Aotearoa New Zealand. Last year she won the President’s Scholarship to study a Master of Science at The New School, Parsons School of Design, in NYC. This year she was a recipient of the John L. Tishman Scholarship for exemplary commitment toward Sustainability. Peren is a change maker, having led and founded the biggest waste minimisation Movement to go to New Zealand Parliament ‘Tino Pai Aotearoa/ Thumbs Up New Zealand’ (the legislation is under consideration and if implemented would be the first of its kind).