(CNN) – Sassy, Hardy and Naughty: This is how yellow-eyed penguins like to spend their days working with them.
Jason Van Janten, conservation manager at Penguin Place on New Zealand’s Otago Peninsula, said: “(They) are not that smart and cute to look at. They can give you a really hard slap.”
Locally called Hoiho, meaning “word shooter” in Mওori, the yellow-eyed penguin is the largest penguin species that lives and breeds on the mainland of New Zealand.
However, its population has declined dramatically in the last 30 years due to predators, climate change and the growing threat of disease. “In the last 10 years or so, we’ve lost about three-quarters of the population,” said Van Janten.
These penguin sanctuaries are running counter-clockwise to save a rapidly declining population – and give “voice shouts” a chance to fight for survival.
The yellow-eyed penguin – known as Hoiho which means “word shooter” in Mরিori – is the largest penguin species living on the mainland of New Zealand. But in recent decades, Hoiho’s numbers have dwindled. Now, conservationists are scrambling to save these rare birds from extinction.
Penguins in rehabilitation
Although Penguin Place is a haven for all sick and hungry birds, including other penguin species, Van Janten said most of Hoiho’s patients go through it.
The center was established in 1985 when local farmer Howard McGrauth fenced off about 150 acres of his property to create a reserve for eight breeding pairs of yellow-eyed penguins.
McGrauther “set up rehabilitation center bones,” as well as replacing native trees that had previously been cleared for agriculture, says Van Janten, who began working as a center worker, mowing and maintaining the grass, and now oversees the work. Van Janten said the center was funded entirely by tourism until the Covid-19 epidemic, when it had to close to the public and was funded by the Department of Conservation.
“They like to be a little cooler, and with our rising temperatures, they’re under a lot of pressure and overheating,” said Van Janten.
A mysterious disease
In addition to starvation, many Hoiho arrive at Penguin Place with illnesses and injuries – and that’s where The Wildlife Hospital, Dunedin, which specializes in local species, steps in.
Hoiho usually stay in Penguin Place for about two weeks, resting, recovering and getting fat before returning to the wild.
Ben Foley / CNN
Hoiho suffers from a variety of diseases, including avian malaria and dermatitis, which hospitals can treat with antibiotics. In addition, avian diphtheria has devastated the Hoiho population over the past 20 years: it causes sores on the bird’s mouth, resembles ulcers, and makes them difficult to eat, eventually leading to starvation.
And now another new, unknown disease is affecting Hoiho cubs. According to New Zealand Conservation Department’s endangered species veterinarian Kate McInes, temporarily referred to as “red lung”, the disease causes respiratory problems.
The lawsuits began appearing five years ago but “have increased significantly in the last two years,” McInes said. He added that the disease does not appear to be contagious, but researchers are still trying to determine the cause.
If the chicks come to the hospital already sick with a mysterious illness, Argila says they can’t be saved. But Argila and her team have come up with a solution: raising hand puppies in the hospital.
“If we get them at a certain age, when they are very young, we can actually prevent them from getting this disease,” he says. After hatching, the young are picked up from their nests and reunited with their parents in the forest after 10 to 14 days.
For sick and injured birds, the wildlife hospital sends them to Penguin Place after treatment, where they recover before being released into the wild, Argila says. “It’s exciting for us that what we’re doing is actually making a difference.”
A chance to bounce back?
Back at Penguin Place, Hoiho is kept in a small enclosure with rocks, wooden blocks and shelters. Before release they are placed in an intensive feeding program to fatten and fed fish twice a day.
Van Janten said most birds stay in the center for about two weeks before leaving the reserve where they can mate and build nests, adding that the more wild they are, the better for them.
As the only lone species of penguin in the world, the hoiho do not like to be antisocial and nest in the eyes of their neighbors – sometimes even dropping their eggs when they see other penguins, says Van Janten. To make them feel safer, Penguin Place has scattered small A-frame wooden houses across the reserve hidden in the shade of trees and bushes near the beach.
Penguin Place offers visitors a tour of the reserve through camouflage, hand-dug tunnels, so that tourists can see Hoiho in their natural habitat without disturbing them.
Ben Foley / CNN
Although there is always a risk when removing animals from the wild, McInes says conservation requires a hands-on approach: “If we do not intervene, a large number of these cubs will die.” He expects the intervention to increase the breeding of breeding pairs on the beach within the next year or two.
And Van Janten is optimistic that the species will return. Penguin Place boasts an extremely high success rate: more than 95% of the 200 to 300 birds that come to the center each year are released into the wild, he says. Last year the center achieved a personal best, with 99% of the birds released, raising hopes for this critically endangered bird.
Van Janten said, “The work we are doing is very important for these (penguins) and their survival on the mainland.