The popular culture is mad for penguins. If you believe the movies, they sing, they dance and they have misadventures in Madagascar. Sounds like an awesome life. But what about real penguins? What about the threatened population of Punta Tombo penguins who live in southeastern Argentina? They aren’t singing and dancing. But they are rebounding thanks to the efforts of the Global Penguin Society.
Why Are Magellanic Penguins Threatened?
When you think of “penguin”, you are probably visualizing the grand Emperor Penguins. The Emperors live on the vast Antarctic ice shelves and star in documentary films. But there are actually 18 species of penguins on four continents, including: Southern Africa, the South Atlantic, Tasmania, New Zealand, the Galapagos, Chile and Argentina. Eleven of the species are threatened, including the Magellanic penguins of eastern Argentina.
The Magellanic penguins of Argentina live and nest primarily around the Peninsula Valdes and Punta Tombo region of eastern Patagonia. Their population is estimated to be at ~600,000 penguins. Which sounds like a LOT of penguins. But there are several factors at play that had been causing losses of up for 40,000 a year for populations in the Chubut Province which includes the Punta Tombo penguins as well as 29 other colonies.
The coastlines of eastern Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil are major offshore drilling regions and a thoroughfare for oil tankers. Oil spills from the wells and the discharge of oily ballast water from the boats are a a major source of ocean pollution. The oily pollution is a serious cause of mortality for the Magellanic penguins living and migrating along the coastline.
Overfishing and Climate Change
Both fictional penguin movie stars and real live penguins eat fish. The fish populations decline when challenged by a combination of commercial over-fishing and climate change. The reduced availability of fish forces the Punta Tombo penguins to extend their swimming range in search of food. They return back exhausted to underfed chicks. Consequently, the chicks experience a higher mortality rate. The adult penguins are also vulnerable because they get caught up in the fishing nets.
Enter Pablo Borboroglu
Pablo Borboroglu is the Director of the Global Penguin Society. The mission of the Global Penguin Society (GPS) is dedicated to the survival and protection of the world’s penguin species, fostering integrated ocean conservation through science, management and community education. Pablo himself is a native Argentinian. He grew up hearing stories from his grandmother about Patagonia. He internalized those stories and as a result developed a strong reverence for the natural world. As a young adult, he went to Patagonia and worked as a tour guide. The job required him to study the native animals and through that, he became interested in conservation work. He started by delivering conservation messages to his tour clients and then he later pursued a PhD in biology.
During the worst period of penguin decline he attended the International Penguin Congress. While there, he heard a lot of scientific ‘whining’ but didn’t see a lot of action. So Pablo co-founded GPS with the intent of converting the science into conservation action for both the penguins and their habitat. This is a very personal project for him. Pablo lives in Puerto Madryn, which is in the province that also includes the Punta Tombo penguin colonies.
Counting Penguins with Pablo
I had the great fortune to be able to visit Pablo on his home turf. Pablo took my husband and I out with him to do a penguin count at the colony not far from his home. What a treat. Pablo runs a global conservation organization. But he takes a personal interest in his local colony, going out regularly during the breeding and nesting season to keep an eye on things.
Pablo’s colony is located on a lovely but lonely stretch of coastline south of Puerto Madryn in the El Pedral conservation area. We navigated through several stretches of private ranch land to reach the nesting site. Pablo then gave us the crash coarse in penguin behavior, showed us how to locate a nest and set us off to count as many nests as we could find.
The Magellanic penguins don’t live on the ice. This stretch of coastline is rocky and very dry. The penguins scoop out a shallow nest in the dirt of scrubby bushes. When we were there, the nests were just getting ready to hatch, so the penguins weren’t going anywhere. We had to be careful not to stress the penguins by getting too close. But their presence made the nests fairly easy to spot and we counted about 800 of them.
Penguin Conservation and Community Programs
It was a rare privilege to be able to participate in Pablo’s conservation work. But I also found it remarkable because of his fantastic relationship with the local land owners. They all know him and allow him to transit their land to get to the nesting sites. They also keep on eye on things when he’s not around. It works this way with other conservation programs that I’ve profiled, like the Cotton-top Tamarins of Colombia. The goal of the program is the conservation of the animal species, but it’s only successful with the engagement of the local communities.
GPS Community Programs
The GPS program in Argentina has several components of its community programs. Like the Wild African Dog project, they start with the kids. An enthusiastic kid armed with knowledge about a their own species is a powerful political force in any household. GPS takes the kids out on field trips to the nesting sites. They also work in the classroom giving talks and supplying the kids with penguin booklets, posters and binoculars.
GPS works with the adults too. In addition to the land owner outreach, they have engaged the general population in beach clean-ups and have gained cooperation from the community to give the penguins their space during nesting season.
GPS Habitat Conservation Efforts
GPS has also worked hard to mitigate the negative affects of the oil spills and over fishing. They had been advocating for a marine reserve in the Punta Tombo area for quite some time. And then, there was a fortuitous meeting held between the Disney Conservation Fund and the Governor of the Chubut Province. As a result of the meeting, the Governor became an advocate for marine protection. He supported GPS in the designation of the 7.7 million acre Patagonia Azul biosphere reserve. It’s the size of Maryland or Belgium. It covers both land and sea and is the largest biosphere anywhere (map here).
The protected area pushed the shipping lanes further out into the ocean, providing a buffer zone for not only the penguins, but the fish species that they eat, the steamer duck, 110 mammals, 95 bird and 197 invertebrate species. The oil spills have been much reduced since the height of the problem and now they see less than 100 deaths per year due to oil pollution.
As a result, there are now far fewer deaths among the Punta Tombo penguins and the Magellanic penguin populations throughout the region are starting to climb again.
But don’t take my word for it. Check out Pablo’s presentation at the annual Wildlife Conservation Network expo.
See the Punto Tombo Penguins
Unlike the elusive Andean Cat, you can go to Argentina and actually see the Punta Tombo penguins for yourself. The Punto Tombo and Peninsula Valdes areas of northeastern Patagonia don’t get nearly the kind of visitor traffic that they deserve. In addition to the penguin colonies, there are migrating right whales, dolphins, sea lions, elephant seals and orca whales.
Have you seen that video of Orca whales hoisting themselves up onto the beach in order to snatch sea lions? Cool right? Well, the orca do it on the Peninsula Valdes! Argentina is a huge country overflowing with natural wonders. But if you have any interest in marine life, marine mammals or conservation, you should make the time to visit the area.
Here are a few resources to help you plan your trip.
- Pablo recommends getting your own special experience in the El Pedral nesting site by doing a day trip or overnight at the El Pedral Punta Ninfas ranch. They offer small groups and very responsible tourism.
- If you want to see penguins on the Peninsula Valdes, he recommends visiting Estancia San Lorenzo. Reviews and book at Trip Advisor.
- See the Punto Tombo penguins by driving down from Puerto Madryn (187/k)…but don’t go on a Cruise ship day.
- If you want a truly remote penguin experience, drive another 65/k south to Cabo dos Bahias. The nearest town is Camarones and it is in the heart of the biosphere.
- You can read my 4 day independent itinerary to Puerto Madryn and the Peninsula Valdes.
- Or check out this piece on an organized family tour to Puerto Madryn and Punta Tombo.
How to Support the Global Penguin Society
- Donate money to GPS through the Wildlife Conservation Network (be sure to designate GPS in the pull-down menu). I donate to this organization myself and 100% of designated funds will go to GPS.
- Follow GPS on Facebook or Twitter.
- Talk to your local zoo. Penguins are a charismatic and popular species at zoos, bringing in a lot of visitors and revenue. Ask your zoo what they are doing to support penguins in the wild and tell them about Pablo.
Your Parting Shot
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- Conservation Success Stories for the Punta Tombo Penguins