Patients at this New Zealand rehab center aren’t people, they’re penguins

(CNN) — Sassy, ​​hardy and vicious: this is how yellow-eyed penguins are affectionately described by people who spend their days working with them.

“(They) aren’t as cute and cuddly as they look,” says Jason van Zanten, conservation manager at Penguin Place in New Zealand’s Otago Peninsula. “They can give you a really hard slap.”

Locally called hoiho, which means “noise crier” in Maori, the yellow-eyed penguin is the largest of the penguin species that live and breed on mainland New Zealand.

But its population has dropped dramatically over the past 30 years due to growing threats from predators, climate change and disease. “In the last 10 years or so, we’ve lost about three-quarters of the population,” van Zanten says.

Now conservationists are mobilizing to save the species. Penguin Place – where van Zanten works – provides a place for hoiho to rest and recuperate while nearby The Wildlife Hospital, Dunedin treats the seriously injured and ill.

These penguin sanctuaries are racing against time to save the rapidly declining population – and give the “noise criers” a fighting chance.

The yellow-eyed penguin – known as the hoiho which means “noise crier” in Maori – is the largest of the penguin species that live on mainland New Zealand. But in recent decades, the number of hoiho has dropped. Today, conservationists are racing to save these rare birds from extinction.

Penguins in rehab

While Penguin Place is a haven for all sick and hungry birds, including other penguin species, hoiho make up the majority of passing patients, van Zanten says.

The center was founded in 1985 when local farmer Howard McGrouther fenced off about 150 acres of his land to create a reserve for the eight breeding pairs of yellow-eyed penguins that nested on his property.

McGrouther “put the bones of the rehabilitation center in place” and also began replanting native trees that had previously been cleared for agriculture, says van Zanten, who began working at the center as a laborer, cutting l grass and doing maintenance, and now oversees operations. The center was funded entirely by tourism until the Covid-19 pandemic, when it had to close to the public and secured government funding through the Department of Conservation, says van Zanten.

Starvation is a big problem for hoiho, with around 80% of penguins arriving at the center underweight, says van Zanten. Commercial fishing – which has caused some penguins to become bycatch – has reduced the availability of the small fish and squid the penguins feed on, and fluctuating sea temperatures due to climate change have altered the distribution of their prey.

“They like it to be a bit cooler, and with the rising temperatures they are much more stressed and overheated,” says van Zanten.

A mysterious disease

Starvation aside, many hoiho arrive at Penguin Place with illnesses and injuries – and that’s where Dunedin’s Wildlife Hospital, which specializes in native species, comes in.

On land, hoiho are hunted by mammals including dogs, stoats and foxes which can seriously injure them or their chicks, while in the water, sharks and the barracouta, a sharp-toothed predatory fish like razors, often inflict “horrific wounds”, says Lisa. Argilla, Senior Wildlife Veterinarian and Director of Wildlife Hospital, Dunedin.

Hoiho usually stays at Penguin Place for about two weeks, to rest, recuperate, and grow before returning to the wild.

Ben Foley/CNN

Hoiho also suffers from various illnesses, including avian malaria and dermatitis, which the hospital can treat with antibiotics. In addition, avian diphtheria has ravaged the hoiho population for the past 20 years: it causes ulcer-like lesions in the bird’s mouth and makes them difficult to eat, ultimately leading to starvation.

And now there is another unknown new disease affecting hoiho chicks. Tentatively called ‘red lung’, the disease causes respiratory problems, according to Kate McInnes, an endangered species veterinarian with the New Zealand Department of Conservation.

The cases started showing up five years ago, but “there has been a significant increase over the past two (years),” says McInnes. She adds that the disease does not appear to be contagious, but researchers are still trying to determine the cause.

If the chicks arrive at the hospital already with the mystery disease, Argilla says they can’t be saved. But Argilla and his team found a solution: hand-raising chicks in the hospital.

“If we catch them at a certain age, when they’re very young, we can actually prevent them from getting this disease,” she says. The chicks are removed from their nests soon after hatching and are reunited with their parents in the wild after 10–14 days.

For sick and injured birds, the Wildlife Hospital sends them to Penguin Place after treatment, where they recover before being released back into the wild, Argilla says. “It’s exciting for us to know that what we’re doing is actually making a difference.”

A chance to bounce back?

Back at Penguin Place, the hoiho are kept in small enclosures with rocks, wooden blocks, and shelters. They are put on an intensive feeding program to fatten them up before being released and fed fish twice a day.

Most birds stay at the center for around two weeks before being released back into the reserve where they can mate and nest, van Zanten says, adding that “the longer they are in the wild, the better for them”.

As the world’s only solitary penguin species, hoiho are antisocial and don’t like to nest in plain sight of their neighbors — sometimes even abandoning their eggs if they spot another penguin, van Zanten says. To make them feel safer, Penguin Place has scattered small wooden A-frame houses across the reserve, hidden in the shade of trees and bushes near the beach.

Penguin Place offers tours of the reserve to visitors through camouflaged, hand-dug tunnels, so tourists can spot hoiho in their natural habitat without disturbing them.

Penguin Place offers tours of the reserve to visitors through camouflaged, hand-dug tunnels, so tourists can spot hoiho in their natural habitat without disturbing them.

Ben Foley/CNN

While there’s always a risk when removing animals from the wild, McInnes says a hands-on approach to conservation is needed: “If we don’t intervene, a lot of these chicks will die.” She predicts an increase in the number of breeding pairs returning to the beach over the next two years as a result of the interventions.

And van Zanten is optimistic about the species’ ability to bounce back. Penguin Place has an extremely high success rate: more than 95% of the 200 to 300 birds that come to the center each year are released back into the wild, he says. Last year, the center achieved a personal record, with 99% of birds released, giving hope for this critically endangered bird.

“The work we do is absolutely essential for these (penguins) and their survival here on the mainland,” says van Zanten.

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