7 Apr 2017

Protect a penguin today

Beautiful. Inspiring. Under threat. Penguins are among the world’s most charming and recognisable birds, but from south pole to equator, a web of threats is seeing them slide ever-closer towards extinction.

Penguins are the second most threatened group of seabirds after albatrosses. In the photo, King Penguins © O. Prince/princeimages.co.uk
Penguins are the second most threatened group of seabirds after albatrosses. In the photo, King Penguins © O. Prince/princeimages.co.uk
By Rory Crawford

Beautiful. Inspiring. Under threat. Penguins are among the world’s most charming and recognisable birds, but from south pole to equator, a web of threats is seeing them slide ever-closer towards extinction. Next week we will be sharing penguin stories from around the world to celebrate the launch of our upcoming global penguin campaign. And you can help us make a difference.

Some birds just grab the public’s attention. Puffins, parrots, albatrosses and owls; they inspire stories and songs, and we decorate our homes with their images. But one group of birds is singled out for more appreciation by the human race than any other: the penguins. If you think about it, it is strange.

Penguins are unable to undertake that most celebrated aspect of avian life – flight. So no revelling in their soaring or aerial acrobatics. In fact, no revelling in any sort of wild penguin behaviour for most people – to many, penguins might as well come from the moon, so limited are the opportunities to see one in its natural habitat.

Indeed, if they did get this opportunity, they’d soon learn of the rather unappealing smell that a colony of penguins creates… However, this rather speaks to how compelling we find penguins, and to our ability (when we want to) to see beyond our limited horizons and think about life out in some of the most remarkable, remote portions of the planet.

And of course, there are is a lot to love about penguins. They’re cute, and while they’re comical on land, they are remarkable swimmers capable of diving great depths and migrating thousands of kilometres each year. The Antarctic species endure some of the most extreme conditions on Earth to raise their young, a feat deemed worthy of a Morgan Freeman voiceover.

They occupy a host of habitats, from forests in New Zealand to the volcanic islands of the Galapagos, and from the beaches of southern Africa to far-flung Subantarctic Islands. Like so many well-loved species though, human appreciation alone is not enough to stop this group of birds from slipping towards extinction.

Of the 18 species of penguin, 10 are listed by BirdLife as either Vulnerable or Endangered on the IUCN Red List, giving them the dubious honour of being the second most threatened group of seabirds, behind only the albatrosses. Like albatrosses, penguins have been experiencing the worst of both worlds. At their land-based breeding sites, predation by introduced species, habitat degradation and disease are driving down numbers.

At sea, oil pollution and the impacts of fisheries – both by depleting prey stocks and through accidental capture in fishing gear – are taking their toll. The spectre of climate change looms over both the terrestrial and marine realms: habitat loss, more frequent, intense storms, and disruption to the marine food web are all heads of the climatic hydra.

There is therefore much to be done at every level – from the local to the global. Undeniably, a lot is already being done. As you’ll read, conservationists from an array of organisations across the world are targeting conservation action for the most threatened penguin species: ranging from the first stepping stone of conservation – better understanding the ecology of some species and what is driving their declines; to more advanced stages – controlling or eradicating invasive animals at colonies; and even establishing brand new colonies.

Indeed, it should perhaps be a source of encouragement that there is not time or space to cover the great many initiatives for penguins, even from within the BirdLife Partnership – never mind the bigger community of researchers, independent organisations and national institutes working to reverse the fortunes of these charismatic birds (we can wholeheartedly recommend reading the Tawaki Project blog to get more of an insight into some of this work for one of the least-known penguins – the Fiordland Penguin Eudyptes pachyrhynchus, or Tawaki, from New Zealand.

At a broader scale, there have been encouraging moves in Antarctica in recent months: the world’s largest Marine Protected Area (MPA) (1.5 million square kilometres!) was established in the Ross Sea in October last year, helping protect both Emperor Penguin Aptenodytes forsteri and Adélie Penguin Pygoscelis adeliae (plus much more, of course).

This was possible thanks to the agreement of the European Union and 24 countries, following some remarkable feats of negotiation. Our hope, of course, is that this is just the beginning: BirdLife has been working with the British Antarctic Survey for a number of years now to identify the most important places for penguins in the Weddell and Scotia Seas.

Improved marine protections across Antarctica – and of course in important penguin feeding areas and migratory routes the world over – are a critical piece of the conservation puzzle. Penguins are living indicators of our stewardship of the marine environment, and as such, are telling us that we have more to do.

While conservation efforts are driving forward, it is clear we need to address the threats to penguins at every level: from addressing global climate change at the highest, to ensuring that individual colonies are not pushed to extinction at the most local. If we lose a penguin species (perilously close for the likes of the African Penguin Spheniscus demersus and Yellow-eyed Penguin Megadyptes antipodes), what does it say of our society that even the world’s most loved group of birds cannot be spared from man’s excesses?

This should compel everyone, but it is hope and hopeful action – like the Ross Sea MPA – that will keep us going. With this in mind, BirdLife has decided that now is the right time to launch our global Protect a Penguin campaign. With threats on the rise and penguin populations on the decline, we need to act fast, and act decisively, to build support for our conservation work and ensure that the future of these iconic birds isn’t confined to the fiction of cartoons and biscuit wrappers.

To this end, we’re dedicating this month to the penguins. And we’re fighting for their future wherever they may roam. Over the next few articles, we’ll profile the world’s most endangered species – a journey that will take us to such unlikely penguin outposts as Africa, New Zealand and even the tropical waters of an archipelago that straddles the equator.

We also detail the vital work we’re doing to mitigate the threats they face, but only with your support can we scale up our work and show the penguin family just how much, truly, the human race appreciates them.

Learn how you can help here.