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“Eco-tourists” Love Penguins To Death

“Eco-tourists” Love Penguins To Death

Research that shows unregulated tourism is threatening the survival of a yellow-eyed penguin colony on the Otago Peninsula has won a PhD student from the University of Otago a major prize in the MacDiarmid Young Scientists of the Year Awards.

Ursula Ellenberg’s study of the penguin colony at Sandfly Bay about 10 kilometres from Dunedin shows that the birds don’t breed as well as those in more remote sites as a result of stress caused by frequent disturbance from the thousands of people who visit each year.

Ursula has won the Adding Value to Nature category which is sponsored by the University of Waikato. The MacDiarmid Awards are presented by the Foundation for Research, Science and Technology with Fisher & Paykel Appliances as principal sponsor.

The 35-year-old researcher used hidden surveillance cameras and microphones embedded in dummy eggs to observe the birds, which Ursula’s findings have shown to be one of the shyest penguin species in the world. Monitoring shows even careful visitors to nest sites cause a doubling of the penguin’s heart rate with the birds needing up to half an hour to recover.

As a result of disturbance, the birds are more likely to abandon their nests and chick feeding may be disrupted, leading to reduced breeding success and lighter fledglings.

The iconic yellow-eyed penguin caught Ursula’s attention when she learned that increased visitor numbers were associated with a decline in penguin sightings at Sandfly Bay which is one of the most easily accessible bird-spotting sites on the Otago Peninsula.

Ursula says yellow-eyed penguins spend around 80 per cent of their time in the water and many at Sandfly Bay are reluctant to come ashore to return to their nesting sites because they have to pass tourists waiting to snap a photograph.

“People sit on the main penguin highway waiting or get between the birds and their nests, forcing them back into the sea and delaying chick feeding times.

“The wealth of movie and TV footage that shows wildlife close up probably isn’t helping – it raises unrealistic expectations about how close you can get and doesn’t show the space animals need.”

Originally from Germany, Ursula studied at universities in Germany, Canada and Chile before coming to New Zealand five years ago. Her interest in the impact of eco tourism was sparked when she was guiding back country tours in the Norwegian Arctic in the late 1990s and realised how little was known about the potential effects trekkers had on wildlife.

Ursula says her findings highlight the need for appropriate visitor management at eco-tourism sites. She is working with the Department of Conservation to introduce better signage at Sandfly Bay and have volunteer wardens on hand to improve visitor understanding of the impact of their behaviour.


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