Image: Northern Rockhopper Penguin
Richard Cuthbert  /  RSPB
A new study has found that the population of Northern Rockhopper Penguin declined by 90 percent over the last 50 years.
msnbc.com
updated 1/16/2009 6:43:01 PM ET 2009-01-16T23:43:01

Lovelace, the rockhopper penguin that answers life's questions in the animated film "Happy Feet", probably would be just as stumped as the researchers who reported Friday that the population of his northern relatives has declined by 90 percent over the last 50 years.

The population of northern rockhopper penguins once reached into the millions, but now the largest colonies are estimated at between 32,000 to 65,000 pairs on Gough Island, and 40,000 to 50,000 pairs on Tristan da Cunha Island, according to a study in the journal Bird Conservation International.

Those two South Atlantic islands, which are British overseas territories, account for more than 80 percent of the total species population.

"Historically, we know that penguins were exploited by people, and that wild dogs and pigs probably had an impact on their numbers," Richard Cuthbert of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and lead author of the paper, said in a statement. "However, these factors cannot explain the staggering declines since the 1950s, when we have lost upwards of a million birds from Gough and Tristan."

"The declines at Gough since the 1950s are equivalent to losing 100 birds every day for the last 50 years", he added.

"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 towards oblivion," he said. "Understanding what's driving the decline of this bird will help us understand more about other threatened species in the Southern Ocean."

Possible factors, the researchers said, include climate change, shifts in marine ecosystems and overfishing.

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds accused British government agencies of internal bickering that has delayed any action to protect the species.

"They are completely disinterested," RSPB staffer Sarah Sanders said of the government. "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."

Other penguin species had been considered in generally good health until recently. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service last December proposed listing the African penguin as endangered under the Endangered Species Act, and five others as threatened: the yellow-eyed penguin, the white-flippered penguin, the Fiordland crested penguin and the erect-crested penguin, all from New Zealand; as well as the Humboldt penguin of Chile and Peru.

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