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Posts Tagged ‘African penguins’

I’d like to start off by saying that I’m not a hater – just someone wanting to set the record straight. On June 28th, I had the great honor of speaking to an audience of 600+ local movers and shakers at the 2011 TEDxBoston conference. It was definitely one of the highlights of my career as The Penguin Lady. A few months earlier, I had received a phone call from Danielle Duplin, one of the curators of the event, inviting me to give a talk about the historic penguin rescue that took place after the Treasure oil spill in South Africa in June of 2000. As a huge fan of the TED talks, I had to restrain myself from jumping up and down and squealing like a teenaged girl who’d just been asked out by the really cute guy that she has a major crush on. (I’m not sure how successful I was – you’ll have to ask Danielle.)

Something I had not known prior to my TEDx experience, was that the curators have each presenter do a dry run of their talk with them several weeks before the event, just to be sure that everyone’s on the right track and to give each speaker constructive feedback. For those not familiar with the TED and TEDx talks, the concept behind these short, but powerful, presentations is that they’re about innovative ideas worth spreading. As my talk was about an event that had happened eleven years earlier, the curators encouraged me to connect it to something current, so that the audience would still find it relevant. I had already been touching on the BP oil spill in my public appearances over the previous fourteen months, and decided to structure my TEDxBoston talk (in part) around a controversial statement made during the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster. Specifically, I wanted to challenge the assertion held by some, that all oiled birds should be routinely euthanized.

Heavily oiled Laughing gull in the horrific BP oil spill in 2010. Photo by Charlie Riedel

When gut-wrenching images of oil-soaked birds in the Gulf of Mexico, like the one above, were finally released to the public during the BP oil spill, a German biologist by the name of Silvia Gaus sparked a heated debate after she was quoted in a Spiegel article saying the following; “Kill, don’t clean. According to serious studies, the middle-term survival rate of oil-soaked birds is under one percent. We, therefore, oppose cleaning birds.” And I’m sorry to say that she is not alone in making such claims. Ever since reading these words, I’ve felt compelled to inform as many people as possible that this statistic is profoundly inaccurate.

Why, you may ask, am I so certain of this? Because I had the tremendous privilege of working as rehabilitation supervisor during the rescue of nearly 40,000 African penguins following the Treasure oil spill in 2000 – an animal rescue that still stands as the largest and most successful ever undertaken; and I have seen first-hand how incredibly effective such rescue efforts can be. We managed to save 90% of the 19,000 penguins that were oiled, and 95% of the 38,500 penguins that were handled (in addition to the 19,000 oiled birds, another 19,500 unoiled penguins were moved out of the path of the rapidly approaching oil slick).

African penguins oiled in the June 23, 2000 Treasure oil spill in Cape Town, South Africa. Photo by Tony Van Dalsen, DAFF

African penguins oiled in the June 23, 2000 Treasure oil spill in Cape Town, South Africa. Photo by Tony Van Dalsen

And, in the years since the Treasure rescue, I have been in close contact with South African researchers and have read their follow-up studies, which prove that, after being rehabilitated, previously oiled penguins live just as long as their never-oiled counterparts. AND, they breed nearly as successfully – their reproductive success rate is just 11% less than that of never-oiled penguins. And it’s important to note that pelicans and gulls – the two main birds affected by the BP oil spill – have similar rates of long-term survival and reproductive success after being oiled and rehabilitated. So, truly, these rescue and rehab efforts are not only valid – they are vitally important to the future survival of these species (some of which are listed as Threatened or Endangered).

Release of cleaned and rehabilitated African penguins following the Treasure oil spill in Cape Town, South Africa. Photo by Tony Van Dalsen, DAFF
Release of cleaned and rehabilitated African penguins following the Treasure oil spill in Cape Town, South Africa. (The pink spots are a temporary dye to indicate the birds are ready for release, and to help researchers spot them on their islands.) Photo by Tony Van Dalsen, DAFF

So, why does Ms. Gaus, and the others who made statements similar to hers, believe that most oiled birds are going to die no matter what we do – and, therefore, euthanasia is the best response? It seems that most of these individuals are quoting antiquated data, and just have not bothered to read the most recent research on the subject. Apparently, Ms. Gaus worked as a rescuer during the Exxon Valdez oil spill, and it’s true that the animal rescue following that spill was not as successful as the effort that followed the Treasure oil spill. The circumstances of each oil spill are different – and the response to each spill is different as well, so the overall success rate of each effort does vary. But, disaster response protocols and rehabilitation techniques have improved dramatically in the twenty+ years since the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Because of this, the average success rate (meaning successful release and long-term survival) for oiled seabirds is currently between 50% and 80% – and it is often much higher, as evidenced by the 90% success rate we had with the Treasure rescue.

Certainly, not every oiled animal can be saved, and each one must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. It is true that some individuals will just be too ill or compromised to save, and in that case, euthanasia may indeed be the most humane and practical solution. But, every oiled animal deserves the dignity and respect of a caring response – and the opportunity for a second chance at life. Each one should be rescued and – if possible – rehabilitated, not only to ease the suffering of that individual animal, but to help ensure the future survival of that species. It is simply the right thing to do; ethically, morally and practically.

The video of my 12-minute TEDxBoston talk titled, The Great Penguin Rescue: the inspiring global response to a species in distress, is below. In it, I not only address the issue I’ve just written about; I also point out the power of one person to make a tremendous difference, and I highlight the importance of collaboration and volunteerism as well. For more information about my TEDx talk, visit the TEDxBoston website or check it out on YouTube. Here are the links: TEDxBoston and YouTube. If you agree with my key messages in this talk, please share the video with others. And, if you want to learn more about the incredible rescue of 40,000 penguins following the Treasure oil spill, my award-winning book, also titled, The Great Penguin Rescue, is available on Amazon and at other major outlets.

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This past Sunday marked an important turning point in the massive rescue operation currently underway at Tristan da Cunha. Of the 3,662 oiled penguins that have been collected to date, twenty-four lucky birds were released after making it through the cleaning and rehabilitation process. Here is a link to an article about this release from BirdLife International’s website: First Tristan penguins released from rehab. Katrine Herian, RSPB’S Project Officer on the island, was quoted as saying, “It was an emotional moment to see these penguins released from captivity and walk into the sea and then swim off among the waves.”

Having served as a rehabilitation supervisor during the rescue of 19,000 oiled penguins during the Treasure oil spill in 2000, I can just imagine the thrill of that moment. I say ‘imagine’ because I was in South Africa for the first three weeks of the operation, and most of our team had to leave Cape Town before any of the penguins were released. It was incredibly hard to leave without knowing how the penguins would fare – and excruciating leaving our colleagues behind where there was still so much work to be done. I always felt as though we had missed an important part of the rescue experience by not witnessing a release of some of the penguins we had worked so hard to save.

Release of first 24 Rockhopper penguins at Tristan. Photo by Trevor Glass

Release of first 24 Rockhopper penguins at Tristan. Photo by Trevor Glass

But the work is far from over on Tristan. They still have more than 3,600 oiled birds under their care – and thousands more oiled penguins (as well as other oiled birds and marine mammals) are still out on the islands. In addition to the oiled birds they’ve rescued, about 1,500 clean penguins have been collected to be transported to clean waters far from the area. So far, about 375 of the oiled penguins they’ve collected have died. Because it has taken so long for supplies and more help to arrive, the penguins’ chances of survival are more tenuous. The longer a penguin sits covered in oil, the more susceptible it is to illness or death.

Oil-covered Rockhopper penguins on Nightingale Island. Photo by Trevor Glass.

Oil-covered Rockhopper penguins on Nightingale Island. Photo by Trevor Glass.

The good news is that the long-awaited second ship finally arrived from Cape Town earlier this week, carrying much-needed supplies and an experienced rescue team. Included on this team are Mariette Hopley, a superhuman dynamo who is a logistical genius. Mariette oversaw the creation and operation of the Salt River Penguin Crisis Centre during the Treasure rescue effort – this was a satellite facility that housed 16,000 of the 19,000 oiled penguins collected from Robben and Dassen Islands. Also on the ship was Venessa Strauss, current CEO of SANCCOB, the premier penguin rescue center in South Africa. They’ll be joining former colleague Estelle van der Merwe who, as previous Centre Manager of SANCCOB, served as the Treasure Crisis Manager overseeing the entire operation. Estelle was a member of the first rescue team to arrive at Tristan da Cunha following the sinking of the MS Oliva, and is currently serving as Environmental Advisor for this disaster. Although the task ahead of these experts, the Tristan Conservation Team, and the 100 islanders working to save the oiled birds is almost incomprehensible, I feel a great sense of relief knowing that these three extraordinarily capable women are on the rescue team.

Estelle van der Merwe with oiled Rockhoppers.

Estelle van der Merwe with oiled Rockhoppers at Tristan da Cunha.

I encourage everyone who cares even a little bit about penguins or other birds, or about animals and nature in general to consider making a donation to help save these endangered penguins. There are just 150,000-200,000 Northern Rockhopper penguins left on earth, and most of them live in this remote island group. Conservation experts on the islands have estimated that up to 40,000 penguins could become oiled. This spill could have a devastating impact on their rapidly dwindling population. You can donate to help save these birds through one of the following groups. Please give generously! Thank you!

The Ocean Doctor (Dr. David Guggenheim) via The Ocean Foundation:  http://oceandoctor.org/ (Click on the green ‘donate now’ button in the right-hand column.) Or go to this link: Nightingale Island Disaster Penguin and Seabird Rescue Fund


RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds): Nightingale Island Emergency Appeal


Foundation for Antarctic Research (via Crowdrise): Catastrophic Oil Spill – Tristan


BirdLife International’s “Community” page will feature regular updates on the rescue effort, so check it often for the latest news. Here is their Tristan report from yesterday: Island gets set to wash thousands of penguins.

Thank you!

Dyan deNapoli (The Penguin Lady) – author of The Great Penguin Rescue


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