A year ago, as I walked Boulders Beach, 45 minutes south of the metropolis of Cape Town, South Africa, I had no idea that I was staring extinction in the face.
Waddling at my feet were African penguins in a colony that seemingly coexisted cheerfully with the tourism of neighboring Simon's Town. Parents groomed chicks with beaks in small depressions in the sand. They stood still for "family portraits.'' One curious adult ambled up to my camera bag and poked at it. Back then, all I felt was the adrenaline of excitement any bird lover would feel seeing a penguin in the wild for the first time, even if this wild was rather tame.
A year later, I have the chill of realizing that, unless something changes, these penguins could well join the dodo, moa, great auk, or any of the large flightless birds we pushed into nonexistence. The African penguin has declined from at least a million birds in the 1920s to only 25,000 breeding pairs today in South Africa and Namibia. When I asked Jessica Kemper, senior seabird biologist for Namibia's ministry of fisheries and marine resources, if the bird stood a chance of becoming extinct this century, she answered, "Big time.''
Kemper said this last week at the New England Aquarium during the 7th International Penguin Conference. Held every three or four years since 1988, this conference reaffirmed in greater detail yet how the penguin is a red-flag species in our alteration of the planet. Of the world's 18 penguin species, 10 are in serious population decline. The Galapagos penguin is down to 1,800 birds and facing a 30 percent chance of extinction in this century.
"People think because penguins live in protected areas, they think that they are all protected,'' said researcher Pablo Garcia Borboroglu of Argentina, president of the Global Penguin Society. "They don't know about the other world and the threats that are out there.''
Wayne Trivelpiece, Antarctic ecosystem biologist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, reported on how even chinstrap and Adelie penguins - which are still relatively numerous - are experiencing considerable declines as climate change melts southern ice. Those penguins depend on krill, and krill feed on ice algae. As ice melts away, krill disappear. Trivelpiece said that krill density in some study areas has declined 80 percent since the 1970s. During that same period, the rate of survival to breeding age fell from around half to no more than 15 percent.
"Think of it like your freezer,'' Trivelpiece said. "If your freezer is at 30 degrees, you have ice cubes. If your freezer is at 33, you have water in your trays. What's happening to the penguins is one of the great examples of how a little bit of warmth is so dramatic.''
The African penguin has declined so fast that researchers who thought things were fine only a decade ago are stunned. In just the last eight years, South Africa's penguin population has dropped by nearly two-thirds. It was listed this year as "endangered'' on the world Red List of the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
The African penguin has been hit with a double whammy. First its seas were plundered by fishing fleets. Then ocean temperature changes appear to have driven off the remaining sources of anchovies and sardines, leaving the birds to feed on fish with only half the energy content. In the last decade, the bird has also been battered by oil spills in both South Africa and Namibia, and researchers in both countries see no end in sight to this threat as both countries plan more coastal refineries and mining operations.
"All you need is one oil spill in the wrong place and we're in big trouble,'' Kemper said. This puts a sobering twist on the 2005 hit documentary "March of the Penguins.'' Narrator Morgan Freeman said the long march, mating, and rearing of an emperor penguin chick in frigid conditions was a love story. Suddenly, the penguin needs our love, before we make it too warm for them to survive.
While the news for penguins is troubling, record numbers of Atlantic puffins continue to breed in Audubon's Project Puffin in Maine. It was also a good year for loons in New Hampshire, according to the Loon Preservation Committee. For my annual update on the restoration of puffins and protection of loons, see the sidebar accompanying the online version of this column at www.boston.com.