On January 19, a day before the focus of Dunedin (and the world) turned to Donald Trump’s inauguration as the 45th president of the United States, the Otago Daily Times reported the sad news of Dale’s demise.
Dale the seal had become a proto-celebrity in Dunedin, with his habit of disturbing traffic along Portsmouth Dr, and surprising pedestrians close to the area surrounding the Andersons Bay Inlet.
Dale became the subject that brought total strangers to converse, to share a laugh and to come together in their common admiration for an unusually close encounter with nature. Anyone who gathered around Dale will most likely attest to these types of interactions.
While many would regard the “peace” Dale conveyed upon his countless admirers as sentimental, it highlights legitimate human reactions that find solid grounding on research exploring the connections between exposure to biodiversity and the emergence of systems of peace.
Biodiversity conservation provides much more than environmental benefits; it provides a base upon which humans may establish systems for co-operation and resource sharing.
The most evident of such cases, and a central topic of research carried out at the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, is the process that brought the 1995 border dispute between Ecuador and Peru to a definitive resolution.
The materialisation of this process, the trans-boundary Condor-Kutuku Peace Park, was the manifestation of a shared belief that conserving natural resources, as opposed to fighting over them, would not only bring significant benefits to the warring parties, but it would also provide the stage for further co-operation.
This is also a reality in our own communities. From exposure to sea lions and gazing upon albatross nests to restoring seemingly lost wetlands, it is crucial to comprehend the often understated benefits of publicly funded initiatives that seek to conserve Dunedin’s, and New Zealand’s, natural resources and ecosystems. Too often, we highlight the economic benefits of these efforts, but we must also understand these public investments yield assets that transcend the directly visible human dimension, and help cement systems that allow us to establish co-operative and positive relationships.
Dale’s passing, as reflected in the small shrine at the juncture of Portsmouth Dr and Portobello Rd, highlights the sense of loss in a community that was briefly brought together by his sporadic appearances. It should also remind us of the natural richness that binds us all together, and of our responsibility as a society to coalesce behind its protection.
Work still remains to be done to create an urban environment that fully integrates and respects our natural ecosystem, an objective worth rallying behind. It takes more than the much-appreciated efforts of the Department of Conservation to ensure future generations benefit from the same environmental elements we now enjoy. Environmental conservation entails citizenship, and we must all embrace it, one action at a time.