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Penguins: Promoting Polar Awareness While Melting Our Hearts
(Released August 2012)

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  by Natalie Abram  

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Conservation and polar animals is a very hot topic.  The Northern Hemisphere boasts the glorious polar bear which is struggling for survival.  Penguins obtain equal attention.  Since the polar regions are the bellwethers of climate change, biota in those regions will be impacted most harshly.  “The newly established Global Penguin Society could provide a forum for further discussions about a long term monitoring program of Emperor penguins around Antarctica and examine suitable locations, methodologies, as well as safe ways to approach a colony...To add to this pressure by imposing unnecessary disturbance during census and other research activities would be irresponsible.  Any monitoring activity has to ensure that human activities do not negatively impact on local Emperor penguin populations if an unambiguous link between changes in populations and environmental variability is to be established” (Wienecke 164). Zoos, nonprofit groups and sustainable ecotourism all promote conservation and awareness of penguins.

Dawn© dish soap features penguins on some of the bottles and a portion of the profits helps with oil clean-ups.  The dish soap has been used in oil spill recovery efforts, and can reduce the amount of oil lodged on the feathers.  “For nearly a decade, the large number of penguins covered in petroleum each year drew attention of newspapers, television, corporations, local environment groups and the general public” (Boersma 603). Large environmental disasters such as oil spills seem to draw more attention when organisms are affected. Most people cannot ignore the oil-drenched animals coated and suffering.  Conservationists and environmentalists work together to promote awareness about the dangers of oil in the oceans as well as attempting to save the aquatic animals that could be mixed up in it.  Like any good habitat, it should be free of pollutants, and unnatural dangers.  Zoos and aquaria have succeeded in encouraging consciousness about penguins.

Penguins in nesting rings
Edinburgh Zoo keepers install nesting rings for their Gentoo penguins.

Penguins have been displayed in zoos for about 100 years.  Their rocky glass homes are for full spectator views.  Each area is equipped with a diving pool kept at constant temperatures.  Feeding takes place by handlers toting buckets of fish.  Some critics say that this reduces the hunting intuition in penguins.  However, penguins, once in captivity, rarely return to the wild.  When penguin chicks and adolescents are orphaned, some are able to survive by hand-rearing (Barham 144). Hand-reared penguins need more monitoring to actually compare survivability and forthcoming recruitment.  “In future oil spills, chicks of oiled parents can be hand-reared successfully to fledgling and released; these fledglings are as fit as naturally-reared chicks.  In spite of this, if resources are scarce, priority should be given to de-oiling breeding adults, because their residual fitness exceeds that of the chicks” (Barham 148).  Clearly, conservation efforts come with difficult choices.  No scientist or enthusiast wants to observe massive mortality rates after an environmental disaster.  If some individuals can be saved, they can be transferred to zoological gardens specifically to strengthen wild populations through breeding efforts (Barham 149). This has long been a conservative effort for zoological institutions.

The Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) created a specialized goal and objective list in 1992:

  1. Penguin husbandry manual: publishing distributing and updating
  2. Space utilization: locating additional captive space and setting priorities for utilization of current space
  3. Regional Collection Plan (RCP): developing and implementing Regional Collection Plan for penguins in North America to best serve AZA’s conservation mission
  4. Communication liaison: to liaise between zoo biologists and captive collection managers, the academic community and the field research community.

All of these led to better zoo and aquarium exhibits.  “Indoor exhibits now have excellent ventilation, water quality controls and reliable thermostability. Artificial light replicates conditions in the wild. Artificial rocks and snow are produced as needed” (Diebold, Branch and Henry 172). Even though Mr. Popper’s Penguins (2012) shows penguins happily parading around in bathtubs of ice, this image is inconsistent and runs against conservation efforts. No research has been completed to this end, but individual ownership of pet penguins probably does exist and possibly leads to improper care.  All zoos that house penguins must follow the Penguin Husbandry Manual that describes proper handling for penguins in these areas, housing and enclosure requirements, management, behavior and social organization, reproduction, and nutrition and health (Diebold, Branch and Henry 172). All captive animals are at risk for diseases and problems. Full veterinary care is required to treat and monitor these aquatic birds. Zoos promote education, awareness, and conservation through active breeding programs and exhibits. Their high standards of care and attention to detail promote the well-being of penguins while placing these beloved birds on display. “The development of strong links between ex-situ penguin management and in-situ conservation efforts will engage this conservation message, thus strengthening the role of zoos in penguin conservation” (Diebold, Branch and Henry 174). When the birds are happy and healthy, the estimated 120 million visitors to zoos, sea parks, and aquaria are even more pleased.  Some programs even allow ‘behind the scenes’ viewing for up close and personal interactions in a well-monitored situation.  Travelers do not only make their way to the zoos for penguin viewing, some even travel to the far reaches of the earth to see penguins in their live habitat. 

Ecotourism and penguins
Tourists walk beside an African penguin in Simon's Town near Cape Town, South Africa.

Ecotourism and eco adventures are on the rise worldwide.  Travelers who once were limited by transportation, harsh climates and limited resources, can now freely book voyages to the Antarctic Peninsula, the Galapagos islands, and the coasts of Namibia.  These hot spots coincide with large colonies of penguins quite visible to tourists with proper visas and the cash to afford it.  Trips of a lifetime take the enthusiasts and vacationers to these seabird sanctuaries once reserved for brave explorers and intrepid scientists.  These viewing adventures promote concern for the species, but it could also be hurting them.  “Visits typically last between 5-15 minutes.  At sites with poor visitation control, people may leave tourist areas or trails and wander through or close to seabird colonies which are supposed to be restricted to visitors…Knowledge of the variability of seabird response to both deliberate and casual intrusions and the ways in which visitor behavior may result in adverse effects on seabird reproduction, is important for the development of management guidelines” (Yorio et al 236-237). One important aspect that leads to human disturbance is the conception that all penguins are friendly and approachable. When the penguins are in the midst of breeding or caring for their young, they are territorial and overly-protective. Aggressive behavior in penguin colonies during these times has been observed.  Ironically, the time of the year which is the mildest for travel coincides with their chick rearing. “Habituation to anthropogenic sounds/approaches could be an adaptation to deal with chronic innocuous stressors, and beneficial from a research perspective. Alternately, whether penguins have actually habituated to anthropogenic disturbances over time or whether human presence has driven the directional selection of human-tolerant phenotypes, remains an open question with profound ecological and conservation implications, and emphasizes the need for more knowledge on the effects of human disturbance on long-term studied populations” (Viblanc 12). More control, guidelines, and stricter regulations need to be in place if the ecotourism side of penguin viewing can be sustained long-term.  More scientific observations need to be documented to actually discern if penguins experience ecological disruption long-term from ecotourism (Yorio et al 241). Tourism groups in Patagonia, Argentina have noticed the need for this directive and established “several management tools such as sanctuaries, the limitation of visitor numbers and both temporal and spatial zoning” (Yorio et al 242). Despite regulations, pedestrian penguin observers are tempted to get closer to the birds.  “Implicit in many visitor guidelines is the expectation that visitors will accurately assess their own impact, based on the observed responses of the birds and will either withdraw from their activity or put greater distance between themselves and the breeding birds if signs of disturbance or modified behavior are evident” (Holmes 2575). Fortunately, this industry can be improved and further helps conservation status of these treasured penguins before they experience specific harm from it.

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