2022 – Patients at New Zealand Rehabilitation Center are not human – they are penguins

(CNN) – Cheeky, ruthless, and fierce, penguins are lovingly described by the people who spend their days working with them.

“[They]are not as cute and cuddly as they seem,” says Jason Van Xanten, director of conservation at Penguin Place in New Zealand’s Otago Peninsula. “They can slap you so hard.”

The yellow-eyed penguin, known locally as Hoiho, which means “loud noise” in Maori, is the largest of the penguin species living and breeding on mainland New Zealand.

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

Now conservationists are mobilizing to save the species. Penguin Square – where van Zanten works – provides a place to rest and recover for Hoiho while he is near Wildlife Hospital, and Dunedin treats people with serious injuries and illnesses.

These oases of penguins race against time to save a rapidly dwindling population – and give “Scream Noise” a chance to survive.

The yellow-eyed penguin – known as hoiho, which means “screaming noise” in Maori – is the largest of the penguin species living on mainland New Zealand. But in recent decades, Hoyo numbers have declined. Now conservationists are trying to save these rare birds from extinction.

Penguins in rehabilitation

While Penguin Place is a haven for all sick and hungry birds, including other penguin species, Hoiho makes up the majority of transient patients, says Van Xanten.

The center was established in 1985 when local farmer Howard McGruther fenced off nearly 150 acres of his land to create a sanctuary for the eight pairs of yellow-eyed penguins that breed on his property.

McGruther “built the bones of the rehab center” and also began replanting native trees that had previously been cleared for planting, says Van Xanten, who started at the center as a lawnmower and maintenance performer and now oversees operations. The center was funded entirely by tourism until the Covid-19 pandemic, when it had to get closer to the public and received state funding through the Ministry of Nature Conservation, says van Xanten.

Hunger is a big problem for Hoyo, with about 80% of penguins reaching the center underweight, van Xanten says. Commercial hunting—which has resulted in some penguins being taken as bycatch—has reduced the availability of small fish and squid that the penguins feed on, and changing sea temperatures and climate change have altered the distribution of their prey.

“They like it a little cooler, and as our temperatures get higher, they’re getting stressed and too hot,” says van Xanten.

mysterious disease

Hunger aside, many Hoiho arrive at Penguin Place sick and wounded – here comes the role of Wildlife Hospital, Dunedin, which specializes in local species.

On land, hoiho prey on mammals, including dogs. Stoats and foxes, which can severely injure you or injure your chicks while in the water, and sharks and bracotta, which are sharp-toothed predatory fish, often cause “horrific injuries,” says Lisa Argyla, senior veterinarian and director of Dunedin Wildlife Hospital.

Hoiho usually stay at Penguin Place for about two weeks to rest, recover and fatten before returning to the wild.

Ben Foley/CNN

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

And now there is a new, unknown disease affecting Hoyo chicks. The disease, which has been tentatively dubbed “red lung,” is causing respiratory problems, according to Kate McInnes, an endangered species veterinarian at the New Zealand Department of Protection.

Cases first appeared five years ago, but “there has been a significant rise in[العامين]The last two,” says McCains. She adds that the disease does not appear to be contagious, but researchers are still trying to determine the cause.

When the chicks arrive at the hospital already sick with the mysterious disease, Argilla says they can’t be saved. But Argilla and her team have found a solution: raising chicks by hand in a hospital.

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

After treatment, the Wildlife Hospital sends sick and injured birds to Penguin Place, where they recover before returning them to the wild, Argilla says. “It’s exciting for us to know that what we do is actually making a difference.”

chance to recover?

Back in Penguin Place, hoiho is kept in small containers with rocks, logs and shelters. They are subjected to an extensive feeding program to fatten them up before release and are fed twice a day.

Most of the birds stay in the center for about two weeks before releasing them to the reserve where they can mate and nest, Van Xanten says, adding: “The more they are in the wild, the better for them.”

Being the world’s only penguin species, the hoiho is unsocial and doesn’t like to nest in plain sight of its neighbors — sometimes even leaving its eggs behind if it spot another penguin, says van Xanten. To make them feel safe, Penguin Place has small A-shaped wooden houses scattered around the reserve, hidden in the shade of trees and bushes near the shore.

Penguin Place offers visitors tours of the reserve through camouflaged and hand-dug tunnels so that tourists can view Hoiho in their natural environment without being disturbed.

Ben Foley/CNN

While there is always a risk in removing animals from the wild, McCains says a practical approach to conservation is needed: “If we don’t intervene, large numbers of these chicks will die.” She expects an increase in the number of breeding pairs that will return to shore in the next year or two as a result of the interventions.

Van Xanten is optimistic that the species can recover. Penguin Place has a very 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 had a personal best with 99% of the birds released, giving hope to this endangered bird.

“The work that we do is critical to these[penguins]and their survival here on the mainland,” says Van Xanten.