A conservation story: Humboldt Penguins
by Nataly H. Aranzamendi
The Humboldt Penguin is a species found along coastal Peru and Chile. Extremely dependent on food brought by cold waters, this species faces many human-induced threats. Lately, scientists have been trying to protect their remaining colonies to ensure the survival of these penguins. Let’s discover what’s on the horizon for these fellows!
The first time I visited a colony of Humboldt Penguins was in 1992. At the time, I was only a kid and I was not sure why we had to take such a long trip just to go to the beach. My family promised me that the trip was worth it, because we were going to see many interesting wild animals.
Our first stop was locally known as Playa Pinguino or “Penguin Beach.” I remember I was initially disappointed, because the beach did not look like a nice place for swimming and instead there were slimy seaweeds everywhere. However, that initial feeling quickly vanished, when everyone started pointing towards the rocks. That is when I saw little clumsy figures jumping out of the ocean — the first time I saw Humboldt Penguins.
Penguin Beach is probably not a good place for swimming — but the birds love it!
I discovered later that due to the great faunal diversity that includes sea lions, seabirds and plenty of endemic fishes, this site, known as Punta San Juan, was formally upgraded to a protected area in 2009. Nevertheless, this area has been managed for extractive purposes since 1909 and the monitoring of Humboldt Penguins was already in place when I visited that colony. Currently, Punta San Juan holds one of Peru’s largest colonies of Humboldt Penguins and has an active seabird-monitoring program.
Humboldt Penguin populations have suffered several human impacts throughout their range in the past. This species has experienced dramatic declines in numbers and a disappearance of breeding colonies1 , now being classified as Vulnerable.
In the past, the biggest threat to Humboldt Penguins was guano harvesting
Historically, the Humboldt Penguin was affected by extensive guano harvesting in both Peru and Chile, which disturbed their nesting habitat. Moreover, during the El Niño event of 1982-1983, the global population experienced a 3-fold drop from approximately 16,000 – 20,000 birds down to 5,000 – 6,000 individuals1. Despite high uncertainty about the future of their populations, the management of key colonies could bring good news for this species.
The biggest threats for Humboldt Penguins are entanglement on fishing nets, competition for food with commercial fisheries, human disturbance in colonies, invasive predators (e.g. rats and mice) and poaching of adults. “Research that targets the most important threats for Humboldt Penguins could bring promising results for colony management,” explains seabird expert Dr. Carlos Zavalaga to me, a full-time researcher of the Marine Ecosystems Research Unit of Universidad Científica del Sur, Lima Peru.
What steps are being done to protect Humboldt Penguins now?
According to Dr. Zavalaga, there are still many challenges ahead to achieve total protection of penguins, but several research organizations have projects underway targeting the most pressing issues. For example, in Peru they are working to determine at-sea movements of penguins to examine how they use the area around their colonies and how this overlaps with commercial and artisanal fisheries. In addition, they are trying to understand the effects of anthropogenic disturbance (e.g., fishing proximity, tourist boats) on breeding penguins.
“We have conservative estimates that along the Peruvian coast, penguin populations and breeding sites might be increasing since the early 90’s. Even in Northern Peru, there were islands with no recent records of breeding penguins and now they are showing signs of recovery,” added Dr. Zavalaga. Such protection efforts are only possible thanks to coordinated work between universities, NGOs, the government and private (national and foreign) conservation organizations.
If the research shows significant overlaps between foraging ranges of Humboldt Penguins and the areas used for fishing, it will be of utmost importance that the government establishes Marine Protected Areas around those colonies. Such areas will support a decline in the frequency of negative interactions between penguins and humans, but will also strengthen the protection of a fragile ecosystem.
Visiting the penguin colony when I was a child had a long-lasting positive impact in my life and I feel optimistic knowing there are so many organizations, researchers and volunteers engaged in protecting such an iconic species. I could not imagine a future without Humboldt Penguins.
Did you know about Humboldt Penguins or what do you think about them? Let us know! Also, please help us continue to learn more about penguins by donating to Penguins International. We more than appreciate your support!
You can also read more about penguins in the following blogs:
BirdLife International 2018. Spheniscus humboldti. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2018: e.T22697817A132605004.
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