The Māui dolphin takes its name from the Maori word for the North Island of New Zealand , where they are endemic. According to the latest estimates, only 63 adult specimens of this subspecies of cetaceans remain, which is considered the most unique in the world for several reasons: it is the smallest among all dolphins (it measures around 1.7 meters), it has some markings distinctive black, white and gray colors, and a rounded dorsal fin that differs from the more common triangular fins
The number of Māui dolphins began to decline considerably after 1960 when commercial and recreational fisheries adopted gillnets in coastal areas. According to Livia Esterhazy, the New Zealand director of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) , human activity is the main reason why less than 5% of the original population of these mammals remains: “Human threats are our great concern . This includes fishing activity, as the dolphins are trapped in nets and become bycatch. Other activities that disturb them in their habitat are oil exploration and mining on the seabed. In addition, there are diseases that affect them, such as toxoplasmosis, and of course climate change, we still do not know how the variations in the sea will affect the dolphins. ”
Responsible for the project, with the drone they will use. .
Over the past decades, wildlife protection organizations like WWF have fought battle after battle with the government and the fishing industry to determine how best to protect dolphins. But these barriers appear to have been overcome with the latest initiative New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has announced to save them from extinction. “We need everyone involved to support the project,” Ardern said at the press conference where he presented a sophisticated drone capable of locating dolphins and following them for up to six hours of flight at 100 meters of altitude (so as not to interfere with their natural behavior. ). The non-profit organization Maui63 has developed this project for the last 18 months, programming the drone with artificial intelligence so that it is able to distinguish Māui specimens from other dolphins. The project's technical leader, Tane van der Boon, explains how the drone will provide the most abundant and reliable amount of information about dolphins ever obtained. Until now, cetaceans were only studied through three-week scientific expeditions that occur every five years. “We want to fly regularly and during all seasons, summer and winter, rather than once every five years, because it is very difficult to build rigorous predictive models with so little information. We assume that the animals are quite regular so once we have 1 or 2 years of information, we can start generating predictive models that will tell us where the dolphins are. ”
According to the Maori, these beautiful and intelligent animals are spirits of the water, and their folklore is full of legends with dolphins
The marine protection area established by the New Zealand government in 2008 to prohibit fishing in dolphin habitat is based on limited information that, for example, does not include where cetaceans go in winter. The drone will provide real-time data on its movements and that is why the country's main fishing companies, Sanford and Moana, publicly support the project. Rochelle Constantine is Maui63's lead researcher, with 25 years of experience studying dolphins and whales. She is very pleased that the fishing industry has agreed not to fish in areas that the drone identifies as dolphin areas. “We have been discussing the seriousness of the problem for so many years and what is the best solution according to the level of severity; we need a social process where all those involved come together for the common good. From now on the decisions that are made will be based on scientific data and, therefore, will obtain much better results than if it is only the government telling everyone what to do ”.
New Zealanders have a very special relationship with dolphins. During the summer, every day recreational boats go out to sea with passengers who want to spot these mammals in the wild. The dolphins are so used that they follow the boats and play and jump around them, to the delight of their admirers. According to the Maori, these beautiful and intelligent animals are spirits of the water, and their folklore is full of legends with dolphins helping travelers cross dangerous waters. This is why the New Zealand government has had no qualms about investing 350,000 New Zealand dollars (210,000 euros) to pay for the drone, to prevent the Māui specimens from disappearing forever. In the last expedition to follow the dolphins, five pups were discovered, a very encouraging fact since it is a subspecies with a very slow reproduction rate (females have a calf every 2-4 years). The scientific community trusts that the new protection measures adopted thanks to the drone will allow the population of māuis to continue growing, finally free from the greatest human threats.
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