Saving the yellow-eyed penguin – a photo essay | Environment

At the end of the day, having avoided being bitten on the flipper by a barracouta or chewed by a shark, a shy yellow-eyed penguin prepares to come ashore and make its bed in the bush. Emerging from the surf, he scans the apparently empty sandy strip with his beady eyes for signs of danger. Though he is a swift swimmer, he is fettered by his stumpy legs when ashore. But he grows confident as he comes close to the dense brush.

Then the unexpected happens: eight dark figures spring from three different locations and sprint toward the hoiho – or “little shouter” as the yellow-eyed penguin is known in Māori. He has been bushwhacked like this before and offers only token resistance. “Oh no, not again!” he may have thought.

Luckily these marauders come from the University of Otago and are here to retrieve a GPS tracker. PhD student Mel Young and her helpers are trying to shine a light on the dark plight of these endangered penguins.

  • (Above) Volunteers including Jordana Whyte and Bryony Alden weigh a penguin; (below) Mel Young holds a penguin. All photographs by Murdo Macleod.

This drama is unfolding at the Yellow-eyed Penguin Trust’s Otapahi reserve in the Otago peninsula of New Zealand, a protected space where the hoiho, which is unique to New Zealand, can hope to live and breed relatively undisturbed. There are between 3,200 and 3,600 yellow-eyed penguins left in the wild, down from nearly 7,000 18 years ago. With an 80% loss rate for each year’s chicks, the hoiho’s existence is in peril.

Predation, habitat loss, disturbance, starvation, disease and global warming are just some of their troubles. In the ocean their predators include barracouta, sharks, seals and sea lions, while on land, cats, stoats and ferrets lie in wait. Inappropriate behaviour by visitors has also threatened nesting and moulting birds, and after years of poor food supply a missed meal for a chick could mean the difference between life or death.

But the people of Otago are not giving up hope, and a whole host of organisations and volunteers are intervening. For instance, the Yellow-eyed Penguin Trust provides and nurtures suitable reserves in various locations; the brand new Dunedin Wildlife hospital at Otago Polytechnic patches up penguins so that they can return to the fray; and the private Penguin Place reserve where they convalesce from their trauma is open to visitors and tourists eager to glimpse penguins without disturbing them in the wild.

  • Caring for sick birds at Dunedin Wildlife hospital.

Wildlife vet Lisa Argilla is the director of Dunedin Wildlife hospital. It opened only a month ago following successful trials of pop-up hospitals in 2016 and 2017, and has already treated 24 yellow-eyed penguins. Before the hospital opened, sick or injured endangered species were flown to the North Island for treatment – a journey which seriously reduced their chances of pulling through.

“We do what we can to save the species,” Argilla says. “Attacks by predators are a natural occurrence but we are at a point where if we can fix injuries caused by predation we need to [because] we cannot fix climate change and habitat destruction.”

Regarding the threat of climate change, she says: “They are a sub-Antarctic penguin – the odd hot day is fine but recently we’ve had consistent days in a row of heat, which can result in issues of heat stress and dehydration leading to renal problems. We are unfortunately now seeing an increase in malaria in our penguins. We have to figure out how to deal with that. Fixing climate change would be a good one.”

  • (above) Julia Reid at Penguin Place, the world’s first entirely tourism-funded conservation programme.

Julia Reid is rehabilitation manager at Penguin Place which is located at Harington Point. Reid is pictured training Department of Conservation staff how to feed and rehydrate recovering penguins. Penguin Place is the world’s first entirely tourism-funded conservation programme.

Sick, starving or injured penguins found along the south-east coastline of New Zealand are brought to Penguin Place’s on-site rehabilitation unit for treatment. Half the breeding hoiho at this reserve have been through rehab due to potentially fatal conditions. These rescued birds have produced 32 chicks this season.

  • Sniper, a detection dog which looks for penguin chicks, injured birds and nest sites.

Sniper is a Hungarian wire-haired vizsla belonging to volunteer dog-handler Leith Thomson. Sniper is New Zealand’s first and only Department of Conservation-recognised Yellow-eyed Penguin detection dog. Sniper can find injured birds and nest sites.

She is pictured at the Sandymount Reserve; on this occasion she was looking for chicks but instead found four adult birds, suggesting that the chicks have fledged successfully.

  • Louise Ashton, a plant nursery supervisor with the Yellow-eyed Penguin Trust

Louise Ashton is plant nursery supervisor with the the Yellow-Eyed Penguin Trust, which owns and manages numerous reserves in North Otago, across the Otago peninsula and in the Catlins. The trust has propagated more than 140,000 native trees and shrubs sourced from local seed, which are used to provide more shelter and better nesting sites for the penguins.

Ashton says: “The penguins are on reclaimed sheep farms. They were cleared 100 years ago and now we are putting the plants back. We are starting with flax and cabbage trees to shade out the weeds and help the other plants self-seed. Hopefully it will be self-sustaining in 20 years or so. We are going for the long game ... that’s what I love about it: this is bigger than us.”