Lost penguin should be released if it recovers

2011-06-28 07:19

Wellington – An emperor penguin that found its way to New Zealand from Antarctica should be released off southern New Zealand if it regains good health, an expert said.

The first emperor penguin to travel more than 3 000km from Antarctica to New Zealand in more than 40 years was in critical but stable condition as it recovered from its third operation yesterday at Wellington Zoo.

Scientists, meanwhile, have been debating whether to return the bird to Antarctica, but a Massey University researcher who has camped with and studied a large colony of emperor penguins in the icy continent warned that plan might not work.

“The weeks it could take to get there would put a lot of stress on the bird,” associate professor John Cockrem said.

He said releasing the penguin off the south coast of New Zealand was the best option, should it return to full health.

“There are international protocols in place to protect Antarctic wildlife,” he said. “These protocols are important, and the risks are real as there are multiple examples of Antarctic penguin colonies experiencing significant deaths due to suspected viruses.”

It was also impossible to know which colony the penguin was from, he said.

The juvenile penguin, about 1m tall, fell ill after landing last week at Peka Peka Beach, 70km north of Wellington.

Conservation Department staff said the penguin had been eating sand and become lethargic in conditions that were far warmer than its natural habitat. Penguins eat snow in their natural habitat to cool down.

Sand and other material has been removed from the bird’s stomach and oesophagus, and a decision was expected tomorrow about whether it should undergo another surgery.

Cockrem advised against captivity for the bird, saying New Zealand does not have the facilities to house it and sending it to California, which does, would stress the penguin.

The first emperor penguin found in New Zealand in 1967 was released in the Foveaux Strait, and release back to sea would be the best option for the current bird, the professor argued.

“We would be releasing it into its own environment and a satellite tag could be used to track its progress,” he said.

The emperor is the largest of the penguin family, growing to a height of more than 1 metre and weighing up to 30 kilograms. The species is found around the entire coastline of Antarctica but seldom ventures further north.

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