Tourism behaviour is threatening the long-term future of yellow-eyed penguins in North Otago, says Rosalie Goldsworthy, manager of the Kaitiki Point Penguin Charitable Trust at Moeraki.
“Other than what is happening here (at Moeraki,) the yellow-eyed penguins are disappearing from North Otago,” Mrs Goldsworthy said.
The reserve Mrs Goldsworthy manages at Moeraki closes each evening but she regularly had to ask people to leave because they were interfering with the penguins’ breeding.
“Why would people want to look at night? I don’t understand,” she said.
“I have to ask them to leave more than 300 nights a year. I imagine it’s worse at Dusky Bay.
“The tourists go too close, they follow the penguins and use a flash camera.
“People are going onto Bushy Beach when they’re asked not to go after 3pm. The birds can’t feed their chicks and they don’t if there are people on the beach.”
The Department of Conservation has signs advising the public to be off Bushy Beach before 9am and after 3pm when the penguins crossed the beach.
One of the difficulties Mrs Goldsworthy found was tourists often did not speak English.
“The number of Chinese visitors has increased enormously. I have heaps of them here. They drive from Christchurch and come here on a day trip and don’t understand anything.”
She said tourists were one issue, but the behaviour of locals was another factor.
“They go fishing and they’ve got dogs and one of the worst-known predators for yellow-eyed penguins are dogs. Others just ignore the signs.
“All the signs are there and when people are challenged they say ‘sorry.’ Each night I ask them to leave they say ‘sorry,’ but wild animals don’t understand.
“We have six penguin nests where the birds cross a tourist path to feed their chicks. Five of these nests failed and it’s only January.
“Chicks need another month of parental support to survive.”
At Bushy Beach, just south of Oamaru, Colin Wolverton used to patrol the beach informing tourists and trying to regulate behaviour.
“I finished in 2010 so I’m not involved, though I still walk the beaches. We have a permit from DoC to rehabilitate the penguins.
“I can’t comment; I’m never there after 3 o’clock,” he said.
Mrs Goldsworthy said she had made her concerns known to the Waitaki District Council.
“I went to the community board; nothing was the response. Nothing’s happening.
“I told them the penguins are going extinct and they needed to know.”
The yellow-eyed penguin is the world’s rarest of the penguin species. Colonies on the Otago Peninsula suffered a heavy mortality rate last summer and this summer only half the breeding nests usually found on the peninsula have been located.
Mrs Goldsworthy said North Otago had about one-third of the known yellow-eyed population – the remainder being in the Catlins and Otago Peninusla.
“In North Otago, 83 per cent of them are here at Kaitiki Point. There are only remnants left elsewhere.
“There are six nests at Bushy Beach this year and four at Tavora and other than that, only single nests. We’ve got 57 nests.”
The breeding season runs from September through to December.
Recent estimates by the International Penguin Conservation Work Group is that only 1200 -1600 yellow-eyed breeding pairs remain, of which 500 are in the South Island.
Blue penguins OK, says Tourism Waitaki
Tourism Waitaki says they have seen no negative effect on the breeding of North Otago’s blue penguins from the 70,000 tourists who visit the Oamaru Blue Penguin Colony each year.
“In fact, our population grows by approximately 10 per cent a year,” said Tourism Waitaki general manager, Jason Gaskill.
“In our experience the vast majority of visitors, irrespective of nationality, native language, or country of origin behave appropriately and show great respect for the penguins and their habitat.”
He said specific numbers for the current blue penguin season were still being collated.
“Dogs do pose a general threat to penguins on land, and can be of concern. However, to the best of my knowledge we have not had any issues with dogs at the Oamaru Blue Penguin Colony.”
By CHRIS TOBIN