Saturday, June 15, 2024

Fight to save rare penguins as numbers decline

Initial counts of hoiho/yellow-eyed penguin nest numbers released by Department Of Conservation (DOC) and the Yellow-eyed Penguin Trust today show a drop from 181 breeding pairs last year to 166 this season.

“The decline comes despite years of blood, sweat and tears invested by so many people to save our vulnerable hoiho, one of the rarest species of penguin in the world”, says DOC’s Marine and Coastal Species Liaison Officer, Chris Page.

“We’ve watched the mainland hoiho population hang in the balance for several years now. Last year’s count was 181 pairs, while this year’s count is comparable to the 2019/2020 season which had 168 pairs.”

The initial count covers hoiho breeding sites between Te Pātaka o Rākaihautū/Banks Peninsula and Curio Bay.

There have been small gains at some locations – north Otago is up one nest and the Catlins are up three, while other places have had losses – Te Pātaka o Rākaihautū/Banks Peninsula is down one.

Alarmingly for those working on the ground, Otago Peninsula came back with a drop of 17 breeding pairs compared with last year, delivering its lowest recorded number since monitoring began in 1990.

Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu hoiho species recovery representative, Yvette Couch-Lewis says it is certainly not from lack of effort.

“Many kaimahi (workers) are working to preserve this season’s hoiho population. My heart breaks for the rangers and community volunteers along the coastline that are protecting hatching hoiho, reviving sick chicks, and trapping predators,” she said.

“I mihi to them for their mahi to awhi (help) vulnerable hoiho that are māuiui (sick) and injured, as they see first-hand the confronting and emotional reality of this population decline.”

Significant community efforts include those by The Wildlife Hospital in Dunedin, who is currently triaging sick chicks, Penguin Place with their monitoring and continued rehabilitation work, and Penguin Rescue Trust in Moeraki, whose staff are literally living alongside hoiho to give them the best chance at life.

Nesting season (October-March) is a vital time for endangered hoiho, says Mr Page, and in the early stages when chicks hatch they are extremely vulnerable.

“Keeping dogs and people away from nests, and the penguins themselves, during breeding season is crucial. Adult hoiho returning to the nest with food have been known to head back out to sea in fear when they see people on the beach, leaving the chicks to starve,” he said.

“Hoiho are already drastically affected by diseases such as diphtheria, so we need to do what we can to help them.”

Yellow-eyed Penguin Trust General Manager, Sue Murray says scientific research holds the key to the future of hoiho and advances can’t come fast enough.

Final nest count estimates will come in at the end of the season and be presented at the annual, Yellow-eyed Penguin Symposium, in August 2022.

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