Patients at this rehab center aren’t human, they’re penguins

Patients at this rehab center aren’t human, they’re penguins

Brash, tough, and petty – this is how yellow-eyed penguins are fondly described by the people who spend their days working with them.

“(They’re) not as cute and cuddly as they look,” says Jason van Zanten, conservation manager for Penguin Place on New Zealand’s Otago Peninsula. “They can give you a very strong slap.”

Locally called hoiho, which means “screamer” in Maori, the yellow-eyed penguin is the largest of the penguin species that live and breed on mainland New Zealand.

But their population has declined dramatically in the last 30 years due to increasing threats from predators, climate change and disease. “In the last 10 years or so, we’ve lost about three-quarters of the population,” says van Zanten.

With some 3,000 mature individuals in the wild, it is one of the most endangered penguin species in the world.

Now, conservationists are mobilizing to save the species. Penguin Place, where Van Zanten works, offers a place for Hoiho to rest and recover, while nearby, Dunedin’s The Wildlife Hospital treats those with serious injuries and illnesses.

These penguin havens race against the clock to save the rapidly declining population and give the “screamers” a chance to survive.

penguins in rehabilitation

Although Penguin Place is a haven for all sick and hungry birds, including other penguin species, hoiho make up the majority of patients who pass through, says van Zanten.

The center was founded in 1985, when local farmer Howard McGrouther fenced off some 150 acres of his land to create a reserve for the eight breeding pairs of yellow-eyed penguins that nested on his property.

McGrouther “laid the foundation for the rehabilitation center” and began replanting native trees that had been cut down for agriculture, says van Zanten, who began working at the center as a laborer, cutting grass and doing maintenance, and now oversees the operations. The center was funded entirely by tourism until the Covid-19 pandemic, when it had to close to the public and received government funding through the conservation department, says Van Zanten.

Starvation is a big problem for the Hoiho, with around 80% of penguins arriving at the center underweight, says van Zanten. Commercial fishing, which has resulted in some penguins being accidentally caught, has reduced the availability of the small fish and squid on which penguins feed, and fluctuations in sea temperature due to climate change have altered the distribution of their populations. dams.

Environmental issues, such as toxic algae blooms and water pollution, have increased pressure on hoiho habitat, and rising temperatures on land are further threatening this “fat, feathery” species. .

“They like to be a little cooler and with rising temperatures they get a lot more stressed and overheat,” says van Zanten.

a mysterious illness

In addition to starvation, many hoiho arrive at Penguin Place with illness and injury, and that’s where Dunedin’s Wildlife Hospital, specializing in native species, steps in.

On land, hoiho are hunted by mammals such as dogs, stoats, and foxes, which can leave them or their chicks seriously injured, while in the water, sharks and barracuda, a predatory fish with sharp teeth, often kill them. they produce “horrible injuries,” says Lisa Argilla, Senior Wildlife Veterinarian and Director of The Wildlife Hospital, Dunedin.

The Hoiho also suffer from various diseases, such as avian malaria and dermatitis, which the hospital can treat with antibiotics. In addition, avian diphtheria has ravaged the hoiho population over the past 20 years, causing ulcer-like lesions in the bird’s mouth and making it difficult for them to feed, ultimately leading to starvation.

And now there is another new and unknown disease affecting hoiho chicks. Tentatively dubbed “red lung,” the disease causes respiratory problems, according to Kate McInnes, an endangered species veterinarian at the New Zealand Department of Conservation.

Cases started showing up five years ago, but “there’s been a significant increase in the last two,” says McInnes. She adds that the illness does not appear to be infectious, but researchers are still trying to determine the cause.

If the chicks arrive at the hospital already sick with the mysterious illness, Argilla says that they cannot be saved. But Argilla and her team have found a solution: raise the chicks by hand in the hospital.

“If we get them at a certain age, when they are very young, we can prevent them from getting this disease,” he says. The chicks are removed from the nest shortly after hatching and rejoin their parents in the wild in 10-14 days.

For sick or injured birds, The Wildlife Hospital sends them to Penguin Place after treatment, where they recover before being released back into the wild, says Argilla. “It’s exciting for us to know that what we do is making a difference.”

A chance to recover?

Back at Penguin Place, the hoiho are kept in small enclosures with rocks, wooden blocks, and shelters. They are put on an intensive feeding program to fatten up before release, and are fed fish twice a day.

Most of the birds stay at the center for about two weeks before being released back into the reserve, where they can mate and nest, van Zanten says, adding: “The longer they are out in the wild, the better for them.”

As the world’s only solitary species of penguin, Hoiho are antisocial and don’t like to nest in full view of their neighbors, sometimes even abandoning their eggs if they see another penguin, says van Zanten. To make them feel safer, Penguin Place has scattered small A-frame wooden houses throughout the reserve, hidden under the shade of trees and bushes near the beach.

Although there is always a risk when animals are removed from the wild, McInnes says a practical approach to conservation is necessary: ​​”If we don’t intervene, a large number of those chicks will die.” McInnes anticipates an increase in breeding pairs returning to the beach in the next one to two years as a result of the interventions.

And van Zanten is optimistic that the species will recover. Penguin Place boasts an extremely high success rate: More than 95% of the 200 to 300 birds that arrive at the center each year are released back into the wild, he says. Last year, the center achieved a personal record, with 99% of birds released, giving hope to this critically endangered bird.

“The work that we do is absolutely critical for these (penguins) and their survival here on the mainland,” says van Zanten.

Melissa Galbraith
Melissa Galbraith is the World News reporter for Globe Live Media. She covers all the major events happening around the World. From Europe to Americas, from Asia to Antarctica, Melissa covers it all. Never miss another Major World Event by bookmarking her author page right here.