The Magellanic penguin project began in 1982 as a result of a company’s intention to harvest Magellanic penguins and turn them into golf gloves, meat and oil. The Wildlife Conservation Society and the Office of Tourism for the Province of Chubut, Argentina entered into a joint agreement to protect the largest Magellanic penguin colony in the world and study the diversity of wildlife at Punta Tombo. Under the direction of Dr. Dee Boersma, Professor of Biology at the University of Washington, a small group of researchers follow individual penguins, monitor the colony, collect data needed for effective conservation, and use penguins as indicators of the health of the environment. The project provides recommendations to the Province to enhance protection of the penguins, educate tourists on conservation, and help improve the experience of the more than 100,000 annual visitors.
The Human Aspect
The reserve at Punta Tombo is located approximately 120 km from the nearest city. Visitors to the 210-hectare reserve are restricted to a small area of about 10 hectares and walk on marked trails among the penguins. Our studies show that the penguins in regularly visited areas are ‘tamer’, allowing people to approach closely without the penguins exhibiting fear or modifying their behavior. Reproductive success of penguins along the tourist trail appears similar to other areas of the colony without tourists. Tourism and penguins are compatible when people are well-managed and don’t interfere with penguins. When people learn about penguins they can also learn how to help with their conservation. Humans, unfortunately, continue to pose a threat to penguins through degradation of the oceans.
The penguins living in the colony at Punta Tombo face threats related to the poor health of the ocean including decreased food availability, poor fishing practices, and pollution. We know relatively little about the competition for food between fishers and penguins however, we do know that as humans continue to ‘vacuum’ the ocean and fish down the food chain, penguins lose. In 2001 about 30 shrimp boats were spotted offshore at Punta Tombo four nights in a row. The morning after their departure the beach was littered with plastic, propane tanks, and cardboard. Researchers cleaned the 100 meters of coastline visited by tourists, collecting an entire truckload of garbage.
Along with fishing, oil is a threat to the penguins at Punta Tombo. In the early 1980s, we estimated 42,000 penguins died each year from the dumping of ballast water contaminated with petroleum. Tankers fill their oil tanks with seawater when they are empty to help stabilize the ship at sea, then empty the oily water into the ocean before arriving at port to take on petroleum. If a penguin swims through petroleum, the oil destroys the insulating properties of the penguin’s feathers. If ingested during foraging or preening, the oil can cause lesions in the stomach and suppress the immune system. Even a small spot of oil can decrease a penguin’s ability to thermoregulate and digest food. Penguins that get oiled often head to shore to stay warm and do not return sea to forage because they get cold and eventually die of starvation. Moving tanker lanes 40 km further offshore along the coast of Chubut in 1997 and less illegal dumping of ballast wastewater reduced the presence of oiled birds on the beaches of Chubut. Humans, as well as penguins, need a healthy ocean for a healthy life.
Climate change is harming some seabirds, including the penguins at Punta Tombo. Increased frequency of storms and rainfall over the last 30 years has increased chick deaths resulting in a decreased number of chicks fledging in rainy years. Click here to read more about the effect of climate change on the penguins of Punta Tombo.
Important Next Steps
Long-term studies are important in helping us understand what effects humans are having on the environment and educate the next generation of conservation biologists. Unfortunately, long-term studies are rare due to lack of government funding and the challenges in securing private support. Some of the changes we see in the penguin population are subtle and would go undetected in a shorter study. The number of breeding pairs of Magellanic penguins at Punta Tombo has declined over 20% in 25 years. We have time to reverse these trends. When penguins help guide our decisions and practices, human use of the environment can be made more compatible with wildlife.
For more information on the penguins, threats, and conservation pick up a copy of
Penguins: Natural History and Conservation by Dr. Pablo Garcia Borboroglu and Dr. P. Dee Boersma (University of Washington Press).