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Penguins in Peril

BOSTON, Massachusetts, December 7, 1998 (ENS) - An "alarming" decline of many of the world's penguin populations was revealed at a forum focusing on these flightless birds held Friday at the New England Aquarium. Four new species of penguins are now seen to be at risk of extinction according to a scientific report two years in the making.

Representatives from The World Conservation Union (IUCN) and penguin biologists from the Aquarium now consider nine penguin species to be endangered or vulnerable and two more species to be near threatened. Previously, only five of the total 17 penguin species were considered threatened.


Endangered erect-crested penguins (Photo by Pete and Barabara Barham)
Penguins are threatened by oil spills, habitat destruction and the overfishing of their food supplies. The rising sea surface temperatures caused by El Niño also affect penguin populations.

Researchers look to penguin populations as indicator species which reflect the health of the oceans and the planet. The fact that many penguin species can no longer sustain their populations suggests a sick planet.

Following the Third International Penguin Conference in Cape Town, South Africa, a Penguin Conservation and Assessment Management Plan (CAMP) workshop was held in September 1996. Thirty-seven penguin experts from 10 countries participated in the event, which was hosted by the Conservation Breeding Specialist Group of the IUCN, and sponsored by Sea World, Inc. and the New England Aquarium.

The penguin specialists found that in busy shipping areas, oil spills damage penguins' feathers, causing them to lose their insulating, water-repellent quality. The penguins may freeze or starve if they cannot swim to catch food.

Ever-increasing coastal use and development often invades penguin nesting areas, displacing breeding adults and sometimes leading to chick mortality.


Galapagos penguin
The Humboldt and Galapagos penguins have been strongly affected by the unusual water currents caused by El Niño. El Niño’s warmer waters displace or kill the fish these penguins eat. There was a 70 percent decrease in the breeding population of both these species following the 1982 to 1983 El Niño episode, and the 1997 to 1998 El Niño weather pattern is causing more penguin deaths.

While the alarm has gone out on four new species, there are two penguin species considered endangered rather than threatened or vulnerable. The Erect-Crested (Eudyptes sclateri) is typically 20 inches high and 10 pounds in weight. They live on Antipodes Island south of New Zealand in an area just listed last week by UNESCO's World Heritage Committee. There are 165,000 breeding pairs. The primary threats they face are marine disturbances and introduced rats taking eggs and chicks.

The Galapagos (Spheniscus mendiculus) penguins living on Ecuador's Galapgos Islands are also endangered, scientists now say. They grow just 12 inches high and weigh only five pounds There are 3,600 to 6,000 individuals surviving. The warm currents caused by El Niño displace or kill the fish this penguin eats.

Of all species of penguins, only those in the Antarctic do not seem to be facing immediate and documented declines in populations, the scientists said.

The Antarctic region is closely regulated and managed, both environmentally and economically. However, penguins in this region are also adversely affected by fishing and tourism. Their numbers have not dropped significantly enough to warrant listing as endangered or vulnerable.

Antarctic species need continued diligent watching and management to maintain their populations, scientists warn.

© Environment News Service (ENS) 1998. All Rights Reserved.

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