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Endangered penguins of the world: Why they're threatened and how to help

Penguins are the world’s second-most endangered bird group—We looked at the growing threats like climate change that they are facing and how you can help to save them.

© Canva

By Atula Gupta, Stacker

The most common myth surrounding penguins is that they are birds living in cold, frozen landscapes, although many species live in warm, tropical regions of the world as well. The incredible Galapagos penguins are the only species living north of the equator.

Worldwide, 18 species of penguins span the coastal forests of South America to the island groups of New Zealand and the subantarctic regions. This beautiful species, while maintaining its characteristic tuxedo-like appearance, has distinct features that distinguish one from the other. There are the world’s rarest yellow-eyed penguins and the regal emperor penguins; the macaroni penguins with their crested feathers; the blue penguins with a coat of blue tinge and the honor of being the smallest species.

Sadly, almost 55% of these charismatic birds are globally threatened. BirdLife International has listed 10 penguin species as either vulnerable or endangered on the IUCN Red List, making penguins the second-most threatened bird group in the world after the albatross.

According to the organization, the most imminent danger to penguins is the rapidly changing oceanic conditions owing to climate change. As ice caps melt and sea levels rise, the survival of penguins would be possible for only those species that rapidly adapt to new habitats and can breed despite evolving conditions.

Additionally, the threat of oil spills might destroy entire colonies and affect generations. As commercial fisheries exploit the same locations where the penguins find their prey, the threat of the birds running out of their sardines and anchovies only becomes greater each day. Conservation experts are also concerned about “introduced predators” like feral dogs, cats, and rats that feast on chicks and vulnerable molting adults.

Thankfully, there are worldwide government, public, and private initiatives in place to monitor the penguin population, study the threats they face, and come up with sustainable solutions to save the iconic species.

This Penguin Awareness Day, celebrated annually on Jan. 20, you can help the penguins too. You can volunteer to help the scientists monitoring the different populations, keep the nests of breeding pairs safe from predators in your region, or simply by being conscious about your choices as a tourist and not disturbing the birds. The PEW Charitable trust lists some good ways to help save the penguins by managing fisheries responsibly and safeguarding penguin habitats.

Stacker used the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List to identify 10 penguin species that are categorized as either endangered or vulnerable.


Southern rockhopper penguin

© Cath Dickson // GBIF

- Scientific name: Eudyptes chrysocome

- IUCN Red List status: Vulnerable

- Geographic range: Argentina, Australia, Chile, Falkland Islands (Malvinas), French Southern Territories, Heard Island and McDonald Islands, New Zealand, South Africa

They are one of the smallest penguins, standing not more than 20 inches tall with red eyes and red-orange beak. The crest of spiky yellow-and-black feathers on their heads distinguishes these penguins from the others. While IUCN notes that their numbers have always been declining, the pace has increased in recent years—the most significant threat being climate change. According to the IUCN, a 2015 study noted delayed breeding in warmer conditions among the birds. The penguins are being regularly monitored by BirdLife International and other organizations.


Macaroni penguin

© Jerzy Strzelecki // Wikimedia Commons

- Scientific name: Eudyptes chrysolophus

- IUCN Red List status: Vulnerable

- Geographic range: Antarctica, Bouvet Island, Chile, Falkland Islands (Malvinas), French Southern Territories, Heard Island and McDonald Islands, South Africa, South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, Brazil, Australia

In the 18th century, young men who wore hats adorned with feathers were called “macaroni.” When English explorers first saw these penguins, they were reminded of the same hat and hence the name. The population has declined rapidly in the last three generations (36 years) mainly because of climate change and competition from commercial fisheries for food. They mainly prefer to eat Antarctic krill. Most of the macaroni penguin breeding sites are protected. Heard Island and McDonald Islands have been marked as a World Heritage Site.


Northern rockhopper penguin

© Brian Gratwicke // GBIF

- Scientific name: Eudyptes moseleyi

- IUCN Red List status: Endangered

- Geographic range: French Southern Territories, Saint Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha, Falkland Islands (Malvinas), South Africa

The northern and southern rockhopper penguins are genetically distinct species and differ in their vocalization and appearance. The prominent spiked feathers are more dominantly black than yellow in these birds. While it is difficult for scientists to monitor their numbers because of the remote locations of the islands in which they live, the species has been marked as Endangered by IUCN since 2008, owing to the consistent declining population since the 1970s. Changes in sea surface temperature and pollution seem to be the most prominent causes of their decreasing numbers. As a majority of them are found on Gough Island and islands in the Tristan da Cunha group, Project Pinnamin—a collaboration between RZSS, the British Antarctic Survey, RSPB, Tristan Conservation, and the Government of South Africa has taken conservation actions like greater public engagement and sustainable harvest of eggs.


Fiordland penguin

© TORSTEN BLACKWOOD/AFP // Getty Images

- Scientific name: Eudyptes pachyrhynchus

- IUCN Red List status: Vulnerable

- Geographic range: Australia, New Zealand

These are the only crested penguins with three to five white stripes on the cheeks. They have dark blue-grey upperparts and silky white underparts. Native to New Zealand, the penguins are also calledTawaki. The major threats to these penguins are human disturbances, fisheries, and introduced predators—especially Stoats that have been observed to kill chicks. Dogs too are a threat to the molting population, with a single dog capable of wiping out the entire colony. The NZ Department of Conservation is working for the conservation and monitoring of the species. Their advice to visitors is to put dogs under leash in penguin areas, keep stray dogs away, and warn others of getting too close to the birds.


Snares penguin

© Sarah Richardson // GBIF

- Scientific name: Eudyptes robustus

- IUCN Red List status: Vulnerable

- Geographic range: Australia, New Zealand, Argentina, Falkland Islands (Malvinas)

Snares penguins look similar to the other crested species but have bare pink skin at the base of their bills. These penguins breed only in the restricted location of the 300-ha Snares Island Group, and while they have been marked vulnerable by the IUCN, their population remains stable. A major reason could be the declaration of Snares Islands as a World Heritage Site, where landing is by permit only. Still, as they inhabit a tiny location, any changes in the environment can threaten the population.


Erect-crested penguin

© Dave Houston // GBIF

- Scientific name: Eudyptes sclateri

- IUCN Red List status: Endangered

- Geographic range: New Zealand, Antarctica, Argentina, Australia, Falkland Islands (Malvinas)

These medium-sized penguins breed in only two locations on the Antipodes and Bounty Islands of New Zealand and are showing a population decline. Like other crested penguins, the erect-crested penguins lay two eggs, where the second egg is usually 85% heavier than the first and thus has greater chances of survival. Their habitat is part of the designated World Heritage Site. The IUCN recommends frequent surveys of the islands every five years, monitoring the effects of climate change, and commercial fisheries to better understand the decrease in numbers.


Yellow-eyed penguin

© Julius Simonelli // GBIF

- Scientific name: Megadyptes antipodes

- IUCN Red List status: Endangered

- Geographic range: New Zealand

Yellow-eyed penguins, also known as hoiho or tarakaka, are endemic to New Zealand and have a pale-yellow band of feathers passing across their eyes. These birds are the flagship species for nature-based tourism in the southern South Island, according to New Zealand Birds Online. They mostly breed on coastal forests, and the major threat to their existence is loss of this habitat. Also, both chicks and adults are prone to infections, the likelihood of which increases as tourist inflow in the islands remains high. The New Zealand Department of Conservation and other organisations regulate tourism, manage habitat protection and restoration, restrict farmland, and restore vegetation.


African penguin

© David Renoult // GBIF

- Scientific name: Spheniscus demersus

- IUCN Red List status: Endangered

- Geographic range: Namibia, South Africa, Angola, Mozambique, Congo, Gabon

African penguins are known as the black-footed or jackass penguin. There is a broad black breast band that makes it easy to recognize them. They have been marked as threatened since 1988 by the IUCN, but it is in the last decade that their population has shown a considerable decline due to shifting prey population and competition with commercial fisheries. Other issues like human disturbances and oil spills have also been a major issue. There are ongoing conservation initiatives including the declaration of their breeding sites as national parks and reserves, monitoring of the sites, and a prohibition on the collection of guano and eggs. Artificial nests have also been provided to increase breeding chances.


Humboldt penguin

© JOHAN ORDONEZ/AFP // Getty Images

- Scientific name: Spheniscus humboldti

- IUCN Red List status: Vulnerable

- Geographic range: Chile, Peru, Colombia, Ecuador

Humboldt penguins are named after a chilly water current that flows through their coastal range in South America. The bare pink skin around the eyes and at the base of the bill helps keep the birds cool during the hottest months of the year. Because of El Niño (heating of oceanic water around the Pacific Ocean), prey availability is reduced, leading to nest abandonment and the death of chicks. As this effect increases, warming conditions are a major threat. Other threats include fisheries competing for the anchovies and sardines that Humboldt penguins eat, besides introduced rats in north and central Chile that might prey on eggs.


Galapagos penguin

© subhashc // GBIF

- Scientific name: Spheniscus mendiculus

- IUCN Red List status: Endangered

- Geographic range: Ecuador (Galapagos)

Galapagos are the only species of penguin found north of the equator. The penguins are small with black heads and a white border around the eyes. The population presently is about 1,200 mature individuals, mainly due to El Niño events. Predators like feral cats were once responsible for wiping out about 49% of the adults from a breeding site. Luckily, the entire population lives within the Galápagos National Park and Galápagos Marine Reserve (GMR), which is managed by the Galápagos National Park Service (GNPS). They are constantly monitored, while sustainable management practices have been adopted.

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Pets Magazine: Endangered penguins of the world: Why they're threatened and how to help
Endangered penguins of the world: Why they're threatened and how to help
Penguins are the world’s second-most endangered bird group—We looked at the growing threats like climate change that they are facing and how you can help to save them.
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