Today marks the 6th anniversary of one of the world’s most remote wildlife rescue operation on Tristan da Cunha in the South Atlantic.
Tucked away in the South Atlantic Ocean, mid-way between South Africa and South America, and a little east of the mid-Atlantic Ridge, lies the Tristan da Cunha archipelago and nearby Gough Island, home to 85% of the global Northern Rockhopper Penguin Eudyptes moseleyi population.
The archipelago comprises three main islands: Inaccessible, Nightingale and Tristan da Cunha itself, with Tristan being the only island with a permanent settlement, Edinburgh of the Seven Seas. Nestled at the base of the volcano on the island’s north-west coast, the village is home to about 270 inhabitants – the Tristanians. Gough Island, 380 km south-southeast of the Tristan group, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site (together with Inaccessible Island) and the only breeding site for this penguin south of the Subtropical front.
The penguin’s bobbing yellow hairdo and braying call is a familiar sight and sound for the Tristanians. Since people settled on Tristan in the early 19th century, the pinnamins, as the locals endearingly call their penguins, have played a key role in the island’s traditions. However, a 90% decline in the population since the 19th century, combined with the penguin’s small breeding range and vulnerability to land- and sea-based threats, meant that when the Northern Rockhopper was recognised as a full species in 2008, it was immediately listed as Endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
Just three years later, the species’ precarious conservation status was driven home when the cargo ship MS Oliva ran aground off the north-western coast of Nightingale Island on 16 March 2011. Approximately 1500 tons of fuel and heavy crude oil escaped from the ship, encircling Nightingale and nearby Middle (locally called Alex) islands, breeding sites to almost half the world’s Northern Rockhopper population. Devastating reports of oiled wildlife and coastlines quickly made the international news. What followed, however, was one of the most remarkable wildlife rescue operations ever undertaken.
Within hours of the spill, a small army of Tristanian volunteers orchestrated an ambitious rescue operation to try to save their penguins. Nightingale Island, where most of the penguins were caught in the oil, has no fresh water or facilities for cleaning penguins, posing a serious challenge to treating the oiled penguins on site. Penguins had to be transported to Tristan da Cunha, across 30 km of often tumultuous seas, for washing and rehabilitation. Hundreds of clean Rockhoppers were carefully corralled on Nightingale, Middle and Inaccessible to decrease the risk of them becoming exposed to the oil while oiled birds were captured and transferred by dinghy to the MV Edinburgh, a lobster fishing vessel operating in the archipelago that, overnight, was transformed into a penguin rescue hub. On 23 March the first fragile cargo of 473 penguins was brought to Tristan and taken to a makeshift rehabilitation centre set up by island’s Public Works Department.
One For All and All for One
Just about everyone on the island got involved in this operation. While the islanders’ heroic actions however were successful at averting the worst-case scenario of the spill, the price of living in splendid isolation is that help is a long way away. Tristan da Cunha and Gough Island are accessible only by ship, with the closest harbour being in Cape Town, South Africa. And when I say “closest”, it means 7 to 11 sailing days away. While the first salvage vessel left Cape Town one day after the MS Oliva ran aground with one seabird rehabilitation expert and enough stabilization supplies on board for the preliminary treatment of 500 penguins, the much-needed equipment to set up a full cleaning and rehabilitation centre only arrived 18 days after the catastrophe.
Luckily, the oil spill happened at a time when most of the penguins had already moulted and left the colony for their winter-feeding areas, so the worst-case scenario was fortunately averted. Nonetheless, of the approximately 3700 oiled birds that were collected for rehabilitation, only 10% survived to be released. Probably many more penguins got trapped in the oil slick at sea and hence, these numbers underestimate the actual impact of the pollution.
Six years after the oil spill, the long-term effects of the oil spill on the population are still unknown. Given that the islands are the strongholds for the Northern Rockhopper this disaster, however raised serious concern as any changes in the islands’ population would have a substantial impact on the global status of this species.
This devastating event taught us once again that disasters can and do strike the most remote places and Tristan da Cunha, renowned as the most isolated human community on Earth, is remote by any standard. The 2011 MS Oliva oil spill highlighted the challenge of getting equipment and medication to the islands when it was critically needed.
The increasing number of ships passing close to the archipelago each year creates a growing risk of chronic oiling as well as further catastrophic spills. Having learnt the lesson, Estelle van der Merwe, a specialist in rehabilitating oiled wildlife, was appointed in 2014 by the Tristan da Cunha government to write an Oiled Wildlife Preparedness and Response Plan for the islands that will enable the Tristanians to be prepared if a disaster should strike once again.
Even though the oil spill had nothing to do with past population declines nor might it be responsible for the fluctuations that followed, what the catastrophe did reveal and highlight in a most striking manner was how little is known about this Endangered species, and that basic but vital information on the species’ general ecology has been almost totally lacking.
It goes without saying that regular surveys carried out by the Tristan Conservation Department have been providing an important and valuable tool to estimate annual population sizes, but are of little help identifying and understanding factors that are driving population trends and dynamics, which is crucial for any decision-making and design of an adequate conservation programme. Hence, there has been a growing need for baseline data and long-term monitoring datasets.
As part of an effort to fill the gap, in 2015, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) partnered up with the Tristan Conservation Department, the British Antarctic Survey, the Zoological Society of Scotland and the South African Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) to propose a comprehensive Rockhopper monitoring scheme to the UK Government’s “Darwin Plus” Overseas Territories Environment and Climate Fund. In March 2016, coinciding with the fifth anniversary of the oil spill, funding was awarded and Project Pinnamin was born.
Written by guest blog by Antje Steinfurth, Conservation Scientist at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, Cambridge, UK