With their stout bodies, large nesting colonies and isolated habitats, penguins seem to be robust, untouchable birds, but in reality they face many critical dangers. Today, 13 of the 18 penguin species in the world are threatened, endangered or extremely vulnerable to further population declines, and more than half of the historic penguin species that have ever existed have already gone extinct. Understanding the threats to penguins is the first step toward ensuring the remaining species thrive.
Historically, humans have been the gravest threat to penguins. These birds are well adapted and have evolved to survive in their harsh environment, but sailors hunting the birds and their eggs for food or to use their fat reserves as emergency fuel gravely decimated many penguin species centuries ago. While those practices are now illegal, many manmade dangers still pose extreme threats to penguins, including:
- Overfishing: Penguins are almost exclusively piscivorous, feeding on fish and krill. When fishermen work in the same region, the available food can quickly be depleted, and penguins face starvation because they cannot get adequate nutrition. Many chicks starve as well, when parent penguins need to hunt further away to find enough food but are unable to return to the nest quickly enough to sustain their offspring.
- Irresponsible Fishing: Even if an area has plenty of prey both for fishermen and penguins, the birds can suffer from harmful fishing techniques. Many penguins become tangled in nets or fishing lines, either drowning or suffering extensive injuries. Unscrupulous fishing boats may also leak fuel and other pollutants or leave behind trash or other debris that can destroy penguins' habitat.
- Climate Change: The changing temperatures and current patterns of the world's oceans are dangerous for penguins. These pelagic birds depend on currents for hunting, and warmer temperatures not only alter the currents and change where fish and krill can be found, but also melt Antarctic ice, reducing prime breeding space for several penguin species.
- Oil Spills: Because penguins spend the majority of their lives at sea, oil spills and other oceanic pollution can be devastating. Even a small amount of oil can disrupt plumage weatherproofing, leaving a penguin susceptible to hypothermia. The birds will preen excessively while attempting to remove the oil, but ingesting the toxins can be poisonous. African penguins are especially threatened by oil spills because their most concentrated populations overlap trade shipping lanes, but all penguins suffer from water pollution.
- Invasive Species: Most penguins nest in huge colonies, often on isolated islands. Introduced predators can devastate even the largest nesting colony in just a few years, and unless the invasive animals – most often cats, rats, mice, dogs, rabbits or ferrets – are eliminated, the penguin populations may never recover. Even if the invaders do not directly harm the adult penguins, chicks or eggs, they may damage habitat and make it unsuitable for the penguins.
- Tourists: While there are many reputable tours that offer penguin viewing experiences while safeguarding the birds, unlicensed or unauthorized tours and tourists who do not respect visitation guidelines can stress and disturb penguins, even causing them to abandon their chicks and nests or leave ideal habitat for locations that are even more dangerous and where survival is more uncertain.
- Poaching: While penguin hunting or egg harvesting is illegal, it still occurs in areas where penguins live close to humans. Legal harvesting of penguin guano (a component of certain fertilizers) in Peru and Chile also endangers Humboldt penguins. The accumulation of guano is essential for nesting burrows but when it is harvested, the nests are destroyed and very little other suitable habitat is available for the breeding birds.
- Lack of Research: One of the most dangerous threats to penguins is simply a lack of knowledge about these birds and what environmental factors have the greatest consequences to their survival. While it is clear that population numbers are drastically changing, the direct causes are not yet known, and without that knowledge, it is impossible to plan effective conservation measures.
In addition to these severe and largely artificial threats, other dangers penguins face include storms destroying nesting areas, disease outbreaks in penguin colonies and predation by seals, skuas, orcas, sharks, giant petrals and other marine animals.
How You Can Help
Even without knowing the exact factors that harm penguins the most, it is possible to take steps to protect these unique and distinctive birds. Every person who takes these simple steps helps improve penguins' environment, supporting their continued survival.
- Reduce your carbon footprint, which will lessen the need for oil and other petroleum products and in turn reducing the risk of oil spills.
- If you eat fish or other seafood, opt for farmed sources or choose suppliers that practice sustainable fishing techniques.
- Protect local water sources and work to eliminate water pollution; the majority of chemical pollutants eventually end up in the ocean.
- If you apply fertilizers to your garden, crops or lawn, investigate their composition and choose suppliers who do not incorporate penguin guano or suspected guano sources.
- If you want to see wild penguins, choose a trip with a reputable company that follows wildlife-friendly practices, and follow all safeguards to protect the birds while on your trip.
- Urge government support for research and conservation programs, particularly in critical penguin regions such as New Zealand, the Faulkland Islands, the Galapagos Islands, Australia and Antarctica.
- Donate to penguin conservation organizations, pelagic wildlife rehabilitation facilities and similar groups that can directly benefit penguins.
- Adopt or sponsor a captive penguin at a local zoo, aquarium or aviary to help support additional research and captive breeding programs.
Penguins are popular birds worldwide, and if everyone who loves these charismatic birds learns what threats they face and takes steps to protect them, every penguin species can thrive.
Photo – Dead Penguin © Mike Linksvayer