Rockhopper penguin rescue


In 2011, a cargo vessel sank in the Atlantic ocean spilling hundreds of tonnes of oil in a World Heritage site. The RRF took just four working days to approve emergency funding to support the rehabilitation of approximately 5,000 Endangered rockhopper penguins.

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The Gough and Inaccessible Islands World Heritage site is one of the most remote inhabited places on Earth. Located in the southern Atlantic Ocean, the chain of islands is over 2,000 miles from the nearest land mass. As a result of this isolation, it has one of the most undisturbed marine environments in the temperate zone.

The site has become a haven for birdlife in particular; the islands are home to 65% of the global northern rockhopper penguin (Eudyptes moseleyi) population. Categorised as Endangered by the IUCN, the species has declined significantly in recent decades due to over-fishing and climate change.

The RRF were very responsive with very short notice. Money was moved very quickly which means the project could move much faster. This is particularly important following grounding and oil spill events, where impacts are best mitigated by an immediate response.
Trevor GlassHead of Conservation, Conservation Department of Tristan da Cunha

The already declining penguin population came under significant extra pressure when on 15 March 2011, a cargo vessel sank off Nightingale Island, one of the core breeding colonies at the site. An estimated 1,500 tonnes of fuel oil seeped into the ocean, coating thousands of rockhopper penguins in oil.

As a UK Overseas Territory, this particular site would typically be ineligible for support from the RRF; however an exception was made for such a time-sensitive and potentially catastrophic scenario. The RRF took just four working days to approve emergency funding to support a rescue and rehabilitation project for affected sea birds.

When RRF funds hit the ground, the Conservation Department of Tristan da Cunha (the management authority for Gough and Inaccessible Islands) acted rapidly to catch and transport oiled penguins away from Nightingale Island, where there are no natural freshwater sources.

A total of 4,000 oil-contaminated rockhopper penguins were caught and successfully rehabilitated by the response team on nearby Tristan da Cunha island. A further 1,000 penguins were contained on Nightingale Island to prevent them entering the water until the danger had passed.

The team received significant assistance from the local community, who used their own boats to locate and catch oiled seabirds. The community went so far as to convert the island’s swimming pool into a penguin rehabilitation hub.

Following treatment, all of the penguins that recovered were marked and released for subsequent monitoring. After their release, initial data indicated that the majority of marked birds did depart successfully on their annual migration, meaning they had a very real chance of survival.

Penguin breeding surveys carried out on Nightingale island in the following year suggested that the oil spill had not been detrimental to penguin breeding success in 2012. This was a major achievement for the team involved and testament to the rapid response of the Conservation Department and the local community, made possible through the support of the RRF.

Half a decade later, Gough and Inaccessible Islands World Heritage site maintains its status as home to the largest breeding population of northern rockhopper penguins in the world, and it is therefore a crucial site for the ongoing survival of the species.

A swift response is the very essence of what we do at the RRF. We have an average application turnaround time of 3 working days*. In time-sensitive, emergency situations, rapidity can mean the difference between irreparable damage and ultimate recovery of sites such as the Gough and Inaccessible Islands.

*data taken from Jan 2014- May 2016