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Experts anxious over future of NZ penguin

Press Association logoPress Association 17/05/2017 John von Radowitz

A penguin that greets tourists arriving in New Zealand and appears on the country's bank notes is heading for regional extinction, experts have warned.

Numbers of yellow-eyed penguins are declining rapidly and the species could vanish from New Zealand's Otago Peninsula altogether by 2060 if conservation efforts are not stepped up, say researchers.

The penguin, already classified as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), is one of New Zealand's chief tourist attractions.

The large birds, which weigh five to six kilograms, are featured on billboards at all major airports, pictured on New Zealand five dollar notes, and widely used in marketing and advertising.

They are a major draw for people visiting the wildlife haven of the Otago Peninsula on New Zealand's South Island, but the chances of seeing them there are quietly slipping away.

Dr Thomas Mattern, from the University of Otago - who has led a new study forecasting the fate of the penguins, said: "Any further losses of yellow-eyed penguins will bring forward the date of their local extinction."

The research highlights the penguins' recent poor breeding success, which is expected to continue to decline largely due to rising ocean temperatures.

It does not take into account adult die-off events such as one in 2013 in which more than 60 penguins perished, said Dr Mattern.

The penguins drown after being caught in fishing nets, are killed by unidentified poisons, and suffer from the impact of human activity on their marine habitats, the researchers point out.

Dr Mattern added: "The problem is that we lack data to examine the extent of human impacts, ranging from fisheries interactions, introduced predators, to human disturbance, all of which contribute to the penguins' demise.

"However, considering that climate change explains only around a third of the variation in penguin numbers, clearly those other factors play a significant role. Unlike climate change, these factors could be managed on a regional scale."

Colleague Dr Ursula Ellenberg, who has studied yellow-eyed penguins for the past 14 years, said: "It is sobering to see the previously busy penguin-breeding areas now overgrown and silent, with only the odd lonely pair hanging on."

Writing in the journal PeerJ, the scientists concluded: "Now we all know that yellow-eyed penguins are quietly slipping away we need to make a choice. Without immediate, bold and effective conservation measures we will lose these penguins from our coasts within our lifetime."

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