Lonely Planet Writer

New Zealand's much photographed yellow-eyed penguins are dwindling in numbers say scientists

They are one of New Zealand’s most iconic birds and images of the famous yellow-eyed penguin adorn the country’s $5 bank note and a legion of tourism billboards.

Yellow-eyed penguin. Image courtesy of Thomas Mattern
Yellow-eyed penguin. Image courtesy of Thomas Mattern

However, scientists have warned the famous bird could face extinction from New Zealand’s mainland by 2060 without a better conservation plan in place. Colonies of the yellow-eyed penguin – or hoiho – are a particularly popular stop-off for travellers to New Zealand’s Otago Peninsula.Visitors can watch the birds from a well-developed network of hides, trenches, and tunnels there.

What tourists may not realise though is that the penguin’s very survival on the Otago Peninsula is under threat from rising ocean temperatures.There are believed to be just 4000 of them left and they are one of the world’s most endangered penguin species.

Research from the University of Otago has shown how the bird could disappear from the mainland of New Zealand within forty years and that’s not factoring in damaging one-off events as happened in 2013 when sixty penguins died with the cause never fully explained. “Any further losses of yellow-eyed penguins will bring forward the date of their local extinction,” explained Dr Thomas Mattern.

However, all is not lost and their future can still be salvaged with a strong conservation plan. The University of Otago said research was needed on the impact of fishing, introduced predators, and how much impact humans were having on penguin numbers and breeding.

Dr Mattern said: “Climate change explains only around a third of the variation in penguin numbers, clearly those other factors play a significant role. Unlike climate change, these factors could be managed on a regional scale.” He said “bold and effective” conservation measures were now an absolute necessity to ensure New Zealanders and visitors would be able to enjoy the bird for generations to come.