Yellow-eyed Penguin Trust works to save endangered bird, with a little help from Mainland

It's not easy being a yellow-eyed penguin. 

Not only are their numbers perilously low, the endangered species is facing a growing list of threats to its habitat and livelihood.

Fortunately, though, the beloved birds – distinctive with their striking yellow band and yellow eyes - are not alone in their plight.

For more than three decades now, the Yellow-eyed Penguin Trust, a conservation organisation based in Dunedin, has been determined to do everything it can to save the species. 

"We are working to save this bird," says the trust's general manager Sue Murray.  "And it's all hands on deck at the moment with the numbers being as low as they are." 

Established in 1987, the trust has seen the species' numbers fluctuate over the years. Although the penguin's population rose considerably from a low of 150 breeding pairs on New Zealand's mainland in 1990/91 to around 600 in 1996/97, today just 225 breeding pairs survive in the South Island.

The penguin - also known as the hoiho - lives only in New Zealand, meaning without a little help from its fellow Kiwis it could disappear forever. 

"I’m optimistic that we can help these birds out," says Murray. "But of course I'm devastated by the low numbers that we’re at." 

The birds breed in just a handful of locations – on the south-east coast of the South Island, Stewart Island and on the subantarctic Auckland and Campbell Islands.

Murray says a mixture of starvation, disease, bycatch and other human threats are responsible for the decline in numbers. 

"There’s multiple things going on. Last year was bad, particularly in North Otago," says Murray. "And this year it's particularly bad down in the Catlins."

The bulk of the trust's efforts go into hands-on activities like controlling introduced predators that threaten the hoiho and working to conserve and re-vegetate the birds' breeding habitats.

"We do this intense management now because we believe that it's the only way that we can help them."

Such work isn't cheap though. Murray says although the trust receives help from various sources, there is one partnership in particular that has been "invaluable" over the years – that with founding sponsor Mainland.

"We’ve been especially lucky," says Murray. "I cannot emphasise that enough. Having that funding has been everything."

Mainland NZ
Mainland NZ has been supporting the Yellow-Eyed Penguin Trust for 30 years, but population numbers are perilously low. Photo credit: The AM Show

Margaret O'Sullivan, Mainland’s marketing manager, says the relationship is one of the longest-standing environmental partnerships in the country.

"We've been partners for 30 years this year, which is pretty amazing," says O'Sullivan.

"It's pretty spectacular the work that they've been doing to try and keep the birds, helping them to survive, creating that environment of planted areas out on the peninsula and all the other sites that they've got."

Although the penguins remain vulnerable, O'Sullivan fears that without the trust’s efforts they might have already become extinct.

"If the trust hadn't been doing all that work over the years we might have lost them before now."

As well as donating money – the company has given more than $2 million over the years – Mainland also helps use their own fan base to spread the word about the importance of saving the hoiho.

And with such a lovable and unique species on the line, Murray says the public has really got behind the cause.

"I think everybody loves penguins, they're beautiful birds," she says.

"I just think they're very special and we are so lucky to have them in our part of the world."

Anyone wanting to help play their part in saving the yellow-eyed penguin can sign up to volunteer their time or make a monetary donation through the trust’s website.

This article is created for Mainland NZ