Yellow-eyed penguins battle for survival

Yellow-eyed penguins battle for survival

Otago's yellow-eyed penguins are battling for survival, with the region's population hitting a 25-year low.

Fifty chicks have died this season after a run of hot weather and an outbreak of avian diptheria. It caps off a bad few years for the endangered birds.

Rangers from the Yellow-eyed Penguin Trust visit nests around coastal Otago twice a week, taking measurements and making sure the birds are putting on weight.

They're also treating penguins affected by avian diphtheria - a disease which can block the airways, forcing chicks to starve to death.

"Certain years it's more prevalent, and this year places have been hit really hard, and some have died," says Leith Thomson, a senior ranger from the Yellow Eyed Penguin Trust.

The Trust's been replanting native bush in areas turned into farmland.

But a hot November with less natural shelter has led to dozens of chicks dying of dehydration and starvation.

"The chicks were quite small when we had really hot days. And the adults know they can't sit on those chicks at that temperature, so they're getting up and leaving," says Mr Thomson.

The penguin population's been dropping steadily, despite the combined efforts of the Trust, Department of Conservation (DOC), and a Penguin rehab facility.

Six years ago, there were 30 nests in the private reserve near Allans Beach. Today, just five nests remain.

The decline is repeated across Otago and Southland, where the populations crashed from almost 500 breeding pairs in 2012 to fewer than 200 today.

The falling population is due to a range of causes, ranging from a mystery toxic agent in the water, through to barracouta attacks and human disturbance at breeding sites.

"If we're not getting that young lot coming through and breeding, we will have issues further down the track… We keep saying year by year, ‘next year's going to be better’, but it hasn't happened," says Mr Thomson.

That's not through a lack of effort. Rangers will monitor the birds throughout the summer, ensuring they're prepared to hit the water early next year.

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