Endangered Penguins: What’s Making Them Go Away?
Recent movies such as Happy Feet and Madagascar show us the entertaining and appealing side of penguins, but neither really stresses how dire the situation with endangered penguins really is. An endangered species is one whose population is declining into alarming numbers—numbers that suggest the species may actually die out. Penguins have been endangered for many years and there are only about 18 to 20 estimated species left.
Although many people believe that all penguins are found in Antarctica, that is simply not true. In fact, only a few species of penguin live as far south as Antarctica. Most species live within the temperate zone, and one species even lives near the equator! So, what’s causing the penguins to go away? Believe it or not, the biggest problem leading to endangered penguins is oil.
When oil tankers or large ship spill oil, there is simply no way to clean up the water well enough or fast enough so that the penguins remain unaffected. Penguins cannot fly, and therefore must dive into the water to obtain their food. When the surface of the water is coated in oil, the penguins must dive through the oil to get to the clear water below. Not only does this entry into the water cause oil to cling to the feathers of the penguins, but they often become re-saturated upon leaving the water. As you can imagine, even attempting to clean themselves or one another is dangerous because they run the risk of ingesting the oil.
Oil spills not only have an adverse effect on the amount of living penguins, but also those that are unborn. If the penguins’ nests come into contact with the oil, there is a good chance that traces of the oil will end up inside the egg. This either kills the developing penguin altogether or causes it to be born with abnormalities.
Of course, oil isn’t the only culprit to blame. Icebergs are causing a lot of damage to the penguin colonies, too. When we hear the term “iceberg”, we usually think of a block of ice maybe the size of a house, but in the Antarctic, icebergs can pose as truly massive obstacles. Penguins are used to traveling specific hunting routs to their food sources, yet in years past, chunks of ice have broken away from the continent so large that they make access to the penguins’ usually food nearly impossible. We’re talking icebergs that extend several miles above and below the water, as well as several miles across it. The harsh reality is that all creatures need food to live, and when a main food source becomes unobtainable or scarce, the population begins to decrease.
Another issue for endangered penguins is boats (both the oil-toting and non kinds). Commercial boats, in particular the large ones, are so massive that they actually hit penguins. As you can imagine, it’s pretty difficult to slow down such a large ship and it’s impossible to see the penguins under the water. Fishing boats and speed boats are also contributors to the penguin death-by-boating numbers. Unfortunately, occurrences such as these are putting large dents in the penguin population.
Historical issues also caused a huge decrease in the penguin population in ways that are thankfully not tolerated in modern times. In areas off the coast of North and South Americas, humans used to track and hunt penguin colonies to use as food, to acquire their skin, and to use as fuel. Yes, I did say fuel. The high fat content of penguins made them ideal sources of oil for ships that used to hunt whales for the same reason. These practices are prohibited today, but the damage done in the past has already caused such a detriment to the penguin population that we aren’t sure whether the numbers will ever go up again.