by Sara Shipley, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
February 8, 2004

The survival of a rare South American penguin depends in part on piles of seabird droppings that the St. Louis Zoo is trying to help conserve.

The threatened Humboldt penguin likes to lay its eggs in seabird droppings, or guano, that once rose mountain-high on the arid coast of Peru. The nitrogen-rich guano reserves, mined as a fertilizer since the time of the Incas, have been whittled to a few feet deep. In some places, the guano has been scraped right down to the rock.

"If the penguins have to nest on bedrock, their chicks can get eaten by predators like foxes and birds," said Mike Macek, the Zoo's bird curator.

The St. Louis Zoo is part of a coalition working to monitor and protect the black, white and pink penguin, which lives only in Peru and Chile. In 2001, the St. Louis Zoo helped institute a "sustainable guano harvest" that sets aside a nesting area for the flightless birds. Ultimately, the Zoo would like Peru's largest Humboldt penguin colony and other sensitive areas to be made off-limits to guano harvest.

In addition, the Zoo has committed staff members and money to help monitor the Humboldts. Penguin keeper Renee Van Deven left last week on a 2 1/2-week trip to count penguins. She also will monitor the birds during their molting process, in which they lose all their feathers and grow new ones.

Macek pioneered the Zoo's involvement with a visit to the first penguin-friendly guano harvest at Punto San Juan three years ago. The Peruvian government, which controls the harvest, worked with American observers to rope off an area for the penguin rookery.

Simply getting to the site involved a seven-hour drive down the coastal highway through a desert landscape that Macek described as "lunar." Dirt and rocks stretched as far as the eye could see, with no evidence of green plants.

At the edge of the Pacific Ocean, cliffs plunged 100 feet to a rocky coastline lapped by crystal clear water, Macek said. Thousands of fur seals, sea lions and sea otters roamed the shore, while millions of cormorants, pelicans, boobies and other seabirds soared above. The birds' droppings dry into layers of guano that stay put for generations in the arid climate.

"You go from a barren wasteland until you look over the edge of the cliff, and there's all this bounty," Macek said.

The chilly Humboldt Current sweeps off the coast of Peru, carrying nutrients that attract fish, which in turn brings whales, seabirds, seals and penguins. Humboldt penguins thrived in this harsh climate for centuries.

Then human activity began taking a toll. Guano deposits were so valuable that Peru waged war with Spain over guano-rich islands in 1864. Intensive harvesting gobbled up the soft, dirtlike bed favored by the Humboldts for burrowing and nesting.

The Humboldts face other problems, too. Over-harvesting of fish, such as the anchovy, has reduced the penguins' food source. El Nino weather cycles have wiped out half or more of the penguin population.

Today, the penguins have minimal protections, Macek said. The sustainable guano harvest restrictions are voluntary, and a shoestring effort by Peruvian biologists to monitor the penguin population lost its original funding a few years ago.

Now, several American zoos have stepped up to help. Last year, the St. Louis Zoo provided $11,000 in funding to the Peruvian program, Macek said.

Zoological manager Anne Tieber recently returned from a trip to Peru to monitor the penguins. Zoo spokeswoman Janet Powell said Tieber faced two flat tires on the drive to remote Punto San Juan, but she was rewarded by seeing 67 wild Humboldt penguins at the first monitoring site.

Van Deven, 27, was a little nervous about her pending trip last week as she hand-fed the penguins their daily diet of smelt, capelin and herring.

Van Deven knew she would be traveling alone to Peru, and she had to leave an 8-month-old baby girl behind with her husband. She had heard that the Punto San Juan research station gets only two hours of electricity a day and has no running water.

"Anne told me it's a lot more rustic than she thought," Van Deven said.

Still, she said, "I'm excited."

Republished with the permission of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
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