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The mysterious decapitation of six fur seal/kekeno pups

Media release

10 January 2019

The mysterious decapitation of six fur seal/kekeno pups

A necropsy (post-mortem) carried out on three of the six New Zealand fur seal/kekeno pups found decapitated late last year has ruled out the possibility of foul play.

The pups were discovered by a tourism operator, floating in the tidal wash at Scenery Nook on the south side of Banks Peninsula on 19 December.

Due to the six seals being found together and no visible damage or bite marks to other parts of their bodies, the Department of Conservation (DOC) initially suspected people were to blame and publicly appealed for information.

Fur seals/kekeno are protected under the Marine Mammals Protection Act and it is a criminal offence to harass, disturb or harm them. Unfortunately, there are a number of known cases of people injuring or killing seals.

To determine the exact cause of death, DOC sent three of the dead seals to Massey University for a necropsy.

DOC Mahaanui Operations Manager, Andy Thompson says the necropsy has ruled out human inflicted injuries.

“We’re really pleased to have been proven wrong and people aren’t to blame, but the mystery continues. We still don’t know for certain what has removed the heads and flippers of the six seals.

The report found the pups injuries weren’t consistent with any land-based predator or scavenger but the nature of the injuries indicated the pups could have potentially been killed by another seal.

“Its possible other fur seals killed the pups which would be the first record of this in New Zealand, however attacks among the same seal species have been recorded in other countries.

“Another theory is a leopard seal or even a sea lion could be to blame for the pup’s deaths, but sea lions are rarely seen around Banks Peninsula.

“It’s still unusual only the heads were removed and there were no additional bite marks to the bodies - although there was evidence of soft tissue bruising, indicating at least some of the damage was inflicted before the pups were killed.”

As the necropsy has indicated no foul play, DOC’s approach to fur seal management is to let nature run its course and the Department is no longer appealing for sightings of boats in the area or investigating the incident.

“The reality is we might never solve this mystery - we’re just relieved this macabre incident is not at the hands of humans,” says Andy Thompson.


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