An endangered species of penguin is mysteriously disappearing from a remote
British island in the South Atlantic at a rate of 100 birds every day. About
two million northern rockhopper penguins have vanished from Tristan da Cunha
and Gough Island, part of the British overseas territory of St Helena, in
half a century.
The once huge penguin populations on the islands have dwindled so dramatically
that they are now threatened with extinction, and the British Government was
accused yesterday of contributing to the decline.
A 90 per cent slump has been observed in both areas but on Tristan it took 130
years whereas it took just 45 years on Gough, where northern rockhopper
penguins, Eudyptes moseleyi, have vanished at a rate of 100 a day.
The islands, which lie 230 miles apart, are the penguin's stronghold, with
more than 80 per cent of the world population being found there. The
remaining population is on two French-administered islands, St Paul and
Amsterdam in the Indian Ocean, and are declining just as rapidly.
Southern rockhopper penguins, Eudyptes chrysocome, which are found on
the Falklands and in South America, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand,
are also in decline but they are found in greater numbers than their sister
Trevor Glass, the conservation officer on Tristan da Cunha, carries out
frequent counts of the penguins and has been alarmed at the fall.
"Rockies are one of Tristan's most charismatic birds and a bird we are used to
seeing in good numbers on all the islands," he said. "These
unexplained declines are really worrying and we'll do everything we can to
understand what is going on."
Climate change and overfishing are among the possible causes but
ornithologists are baffled by the fall and are anxious for a research
project to be conducted to identify whatever is killing the penguins.
There is concern among environmentalists, however, that the British Government
"cannot be bothered" to put any great effort or resources into wildlife
conservation on the overseas territories. A meeting is being held today
between ministers from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Department
for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and the Department for
International Development to try to reach agreement.
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Preparatory meetings held between civil servants to try to reach an accord are
thought to have been inconclusive.
"They are completely disinterested," Sarah Sanders, the Royal Society for the
Protection of Birds' (RSPB) overseas territories officer, said. "It's
ridiculous and embarrassing. We are meant to be world leaders in
biodiversity conservation and we can't even decide who is responsible for
the overseas territories."
She said it appeared that the inertia was partly driven by embarrassment
within Whitehall and Westminster that they still had to take responsibility
for the remnants of Britain's Empire.
British overseas territories boast several species of wildlife found nowhere
else in the world and are home to 32 species of birds at risk of extinction.
Richard Cuthbert, of the RSPB, was one of the authors of a report published in
the journal Bird Conservation International on northern rockhopper penguins,
one of four species of penguin listed as endangered.
He concluded: "The declines on Gough since the 1950s are equivalent to losing
100 birds every day for the last 50 years. With more than half the world's
penguins facing varying degrees of extinction, it is imperative that we
establish the exact reason why the northern rockhopper penguin is sliding
The northern rockhopper population on Gough is estimated at 32,000 to 65,000
pairs. On Tristan it is 40,000 to 50,000 pairs.
Geoff Hilton, a conservation biologist who has studied the rockhopper
penguins, added: "Millions of pairs have disappeared. We really don't
understand the causes, but we suspect that a major change is taking place in
the marine ecosystem."