Penguin protection

One of the many yellow-eyed penguins the facility has patched up over the years. PHOTO: CHRISTINE...
One of the many yellow-eyed penguins the Dunedin Wildlife Hospital has patched up over the years. PHOTO: CHRISTINE O’CONNOR
We should all be concerned about the plight of our beloved yellow-eyed penguins.

We should all rally around those tasked with ensuring the hoiho population, in dire straits after several poor breeding seasons, does not become extinct on the New Zealand mainland.

We should all take a minute to ponder what this place would be like without them.

Our feathered little friends make the South a better place. A wildlife wonder and a tourism drawcard, the penguin population is right up there with the railway station, New Zealand's best stadium, the scenery, the architecture, the cheese rolls and the surprisingly decent weather.

But, goodness, times are hard for the yellow-eyed ones.

Their plight has been laid bare in recent times with confirmation of the damage wrought by mass starvation events, warming ocean temperatures and a high death toll.

Just 227 nests were counted on mainland New Zealand, including Stewart Island and Whenua Hou/Codfish Island, at the start of last season.

That was a precipitous fall from 261 two years earlier. Observed deaths, from avian malaria and starvation and lung infections, had more than doubled, from 52 to 106, in a year.

Worrying numbers. And when you hear more than 430 birds required treatment at various Dunedin facilities, and the estimated mainland hoiho population was only 700-800, you appreciate the full scale of the issue.

The potential horror of the situation was made clear by University of Otago researcher Thomas Mattern, who estimated the species could be functionally extinct from the mainland, meaning the population could not sustain itself without major intervention, any time from 10 years onwards.

A decade. That is the worst-case scenario, sure, but that is a very short space of time. Even if hoiho are ``lucky'' enough to survive here for another 40-50 years, that is hardly reason to celebrate.

This is not so much a wake-up call as a call to arms to do everything possible to save one of the world's most endangered penguins.

At least the Government is acting. It has released its draft strategy aimed at addressing and mitigating the specific challenges - human activities, climate changes and predators - facing hoiho.

The strategy has been a year in the making but it is vital it does not spend too much more time in the planning and discussion stages. Action is needed now.

The South is blessed with abundant wildlife. For some, the mighty albatross - so imposing, majestic and interesting - takes top spot.

But penguins are a bit special, too.

Quite apart from the feelgood factor, they are big contributors to the economy, the estimate being that a breeding pair of yellow-eyed penguins could be worth $60,000.

A future in which the only yellow-eyed penguins are the ones on our $5 notes is not a future we should be willing to accept.


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