Another day, another one of New Zealand’s iconic creatures threatened with extinction. This time, sadly, it’s the yellow-eyed penguin, or hoiho, that is following the way of its flightless brethren.
Researchers have modeled the factors that are driving the decline in population of New Zealand’s mainland penguins and concluded that with the way things are going, local extinction could occur in 25 years, sooner than expected.
Yellow-eyed penguins are endemic to New Zealand, living and breeding around the South Island and some of the close-by smaller islands. They are most famously found on the Otago Peninsula, where they are a key attraction as tourists flock to spot the critters up close using tunnels and hides.
Like New Zealand’s other iconic flightless bird, the kiwi, the hoiho is considered endangered by the IUCN. In the new study, published in PeerJ, researchers from the University of Otago assessed the effects of climate change on the rapidly declining population. According to the study, in the mid-90s breeding pairs peaked on the Otago Peninsula at 385, but dropped to just 108 in 2011.
The researchers’ models showed that at least a third of the population’s decline was due to warming sea surface temperatures, and further models based on the downward trend predicted these penguins could be locally extinct by 2060. However, they point out that this is a conservative estimate and taking into consideration other events that contribute to loss of breeding, like the mass die-off that occurred in 2013 when 63 adults died, extinction could be brought about dramatically.
"Any further losses of yellow-eyed penguins will bring forward the date of their local extinction," lead author Dr Thomas Mattern said in a statement.
"When including adult survival rates from 2015 into the models, the mean projection predicts yellow-eyed penguins to be locally extinct in the next 25 years", added co-author Dr Stefan Meyer.
Increasing sea temperatures that impact the penguins’ ability to breed only accounts for part of the penguins’ decline though. Other contributing factors include human impacts such as large-scale fishing, introduced predators, habitat degradation, and human disturbance.
Dr Mattern even suggested that political reluctance to limit these factors is partly to blame. “When we say, 'Hey, we need to do something about fisheries', the industry fears for the worst and they go into defensive mode. So nothing has eventuated from anything," he told Newshub.
The hoiho is a key tourist attraction used by the government, featured on everything from billboards to monetary notes. “Yet despite being celebrated in this way, the species has been slowly slipping towards local extinction," he said.
The researchers concluded that we need to make a choice to address the factors that can be limited, or even eliminated, declaring: “Without immediate, bold and effective conservation measures, we will lose these penguins from our coasts within our lifetime.”