Protecting Penguins in Peru

By Heather Neldner

Heather Neldner found the beach scenes in Peru spectacular
Heather Neldner found the beach scenes in Peru spectacular.

August in southern Peru is winter. At the Punta San Juan wildlife reserve, where I am stationed for two weeks in early August 2012, it is cloudy in the mornings and quite cool. I need a jacket. It warms up to the mid-60s around noon when the fog burns off and then cools off around 3:30 in the afternoon; it is dark by 6 p.m. and quite chilly at night. The landscape is so varied. In some parts, it is flat; other parts, hilly; some parts rocky; other parts have craters everywhere (these are old guanay nests). Some areas have lots of feathers or small stones, but everywhere you go it is white and windy. The sights and sounds here are truly amazing. Besides the Humboldt penguins, which we are here to observe, the cliff areas contain noisy seals and sea lions, Inca terns, and Peruvian boobies. Other areas of the reserve hold Peruvian pelicans and guanay cormorants. At the height of the nesting season, over a million guanay flock to the reserve, definitely the most numerous birds here.

Heather Neldner cares for Humboldt penguins at the Milwaukee County Zoo.
Heather Neldner cares for Humboldt penguins at the Milwaukee County Zoo.

Peninsulas and islands where guanay and other seabirds congregate to nest have been protected in Peru as “guano reserves” for more than 100 years. In the 1950s, a concrete wall was built across the continental edge of Punta San Juan (PSJ) to make this an artificial island reserve. Of course, it isn’t a reserve just to protect guano (seabird droppings), which is a valuable manure fertilizer. It’s a wildlife sanctuary--one of 33 sites (22 continental peninsulas and 11 islands) included in the guano reserve system, which is managed by SERNANP (Peru´s National Service for Natural Protected Areas) and is administered by the Peruvian government agency AGRORURAL. Punta San Juan is an unusual reserve not only because of the number of and types of animals living within but also because it is completely walled in. The full-time guards we spoke to were extremely happy to be stationed here to protect wildlife and the guano; guards rotate among reserves every two years.

Key site for Humboldt penguins

Historically Punta San Juan has been a site with one of the largest concentrations of fur seals and sea lions in Peru, and is home to large numbers of Inca terns, gulls and guano-producing birds (Peruvian booby, Peruvian brown pelican, and guanay cormorant). The reserve also has the largest Humboldt penguin colony in Peru (about 50% of the Peruvian penguin population) and has among the highest rates of reproduction recorded anywhere for this threatened species.  It is believed that there are over 5,000 penguins in the reserve. At last count there were 1,400 active breeding nests and 2,000 fledglings;  at the height of the breeding season, there are over 1,600 breeding nests. Because Punta San Juan is close to the continental shelf, it has very strong upwellings that produce lots of food, especially anchovies, which sea birds feed on. Cold water has the most productive conditions for food production. Penguins breed primarily on the islands and within the protected reserves (especially the reserves that are walled in). Penguin populations have been declining due to many factors, including climate changes/ El Nino, entanglement in fishing nests and declining fish stocks. Punta San Juan is very important to their survival in Peru.

Workers load bags of guano on the beach
Workers load bags of guano on the beach.

Guano has been mined in Peru since the 1800s by many companies and countries. While it is mostly used for farming, guano also has been used to make gun powder. At one time, it was a form of currency. In 1909 the Peruvian government created the Compania Administradora del Guano and became responsible for managing guano and guano harvesting. The method of harvesting has stayed the same for more than 100 years. It is all done by hand. Using machinery just does not work as well. Guano miners, however, work like a well-oiled machine. One or two workers remove rocks and feathers. Then a line of workers starts behind them with pick axes to break up the guano. Others then come behind them and bag it up. Still others come in and sweep up the fine guano left behind, and that is bagged up.  Each guano bag is 30-40 kilos, and each worker is responsible for moving 40 bags per day. One kilogram equals 2.2 pounds. So that’s 66 to 88 pounds a bag, or up to 3,520 pounds a day. Yet these men make it seem effortless! A large truck moves the bags to another area of the reserve to be cleaned of feathers, rocks, bones, etc., and packaged for distribution.  Men work from 5:30 a.m. to noon each day; after their shift they can get extra pay to do “homework,” which is like our overtime in America. The guano harvesters are hard-working farmers who come from the highlands. The men we spoke to were humble and felt very privileged to be able to harvest guano within the reserve. They were very concerned for the wellbeing of the animals, especially the penguins. 

What happens to the harvested guano?

While 10% is sent overseas (in small bags), the bulk is distributed free within Peru for farming. Guano is extremely important to farmers in mountain regions because nutrients in the soil are altered at higher elevations. Guano is nearly 10% more nutrient-dense than cow manure.

Guano mining at PSJ is carefully managed to meet several goals:

  • to ensure that there is enough guano left over for the birds to nest in so they continue to produce guano for future harvests,
  • to ensure that all animals remain safe during the harvest,
  • to create a sense of pride and success among guano miners, and
  • to show that guano harvests can be conducted with minimal impact on wildlife.

Penguins are not the main species of concern during the harvest, but because they are a vulnerable species, they are given special protection. Many penguins died or had reduced reproductive success after the 1987 harvest because all guano was removed, making it impossible for the penguins to burrow underground for nesting.  It took 10-12 years after that harvest for the guano to become deep enough for the penguins to once again dig burrows.  For the 2001, 2007 and 2012 harvests, conservation biologists negotiated with AGRORURAL to allow the guano in the most important penguin breeding sites to remain for penguin nesting.  The use of international observers in the PSJ reserve during the 2001, 2007 and 2012 harvests proved to be very successful in achieving conservation goals.

During the harvest, observers work in pairs at two-week intervals to monitor harvest activities from two blinds and from beach walks.  In 2012 the monitoring went from August into October. I was one of 27 foreign volunteers (most from zoos) and 21 Peruvian volunteers. Funding support came from 17 institutions. Our daily activities varied greatly because the harvest was not ready to begin when we got there. We kept busy with preparations. Our main project was to do daily counts of penguins, seals and sea lions (ranging from a few animals to thousands of animals, depending on what beach you were on). This was to serve as baseline data for the rest of the harvest (to see if populations changed when the harvest started). We also replaced a fence, cleaned a large stretch of beach, helped set up perimeters to protect the animals from the harvest activities, helped set up signs for the beaches, and made a movable blind for the penguin colony. Once the harvest started, we helped monitor the work and took GPS measurements of the harvested area after harvesting each day.

A fabric wall, or blind, separated penguins from workers
A fabric wall, or blind, separated penguins from workers.

Our biggest success was the movable penguin blind. This was made out of a huge piece of fabric that we dyed and sewed together using nontraditional methods:  paperclip needles and string!  We set up the blind on large wooden poles behind the workers on a stretch of land that the penguins would have to cross to get from their colony down to the beach/ocean to feed. Because the penguins took to it immediately,  the blind may serve as a model for other reserves to use during their harvests as well. 

Teaching people about sea life

Punta San Juan is developing educational programs for nearby communities and also to use as models for other reserves. People cannot protect something they do not understand and are not connected with. So the reserve is working with schools to produce curriculum, such as the life cycle of penguins, that will connect children with nature and penguins.  One goal is to build an interpretation center and interactive museum on site as well as an observation tower with permanent binoculars and spotting scopes so visitors can see the guanay colony. They’d also like to build a large blind so they could take visitors to see the seal, sea lion and penguin colonies firsthand.

Will there be enough fish for both humans and the animals? Punta San Juan is promoting sustainable seafood and also working directly with fisheries to better manage fishing in the area.  One program aims to get local people to understand how important anchovies (tiny fish) are to penguins and birds and to bring awareness to the dangers of overfishing.

Other projects of Punta San Juan ecologists include:

  • helping train veterinarians and vet techs on how to handle and capture wild animals for  yearly health assessments of the animals living within the reserve.
  • involving students in conservation programs and field research.
  • radio tagging animals within the reserve to track movements and possibly recommend other areas that may need to be protected.

Punta San Juan gave me the opportunity not only to help conserve penguins and other wildlife but also to experience another culture. I learned how to make do without many things we take for granted, like flushing toilets, hot showers, refrigeration, and electricity. While the first few days were an adjustment, I have to say that I didn’t really miss these things (except for hot showers) and I did enjoy the simplicity of it all. I also learned patience as things move more slowly in Peru. Everyone was extremely helpful and friendly, and we worked together to bridge language barriers. I have some amazing friends because of this experience.

Heather Neldner is an aviary keeper at the Milwaukee County Zoo in Milwaukee, Wis. She works with the Zoo’s Humboldt penguins and has trained them to help in their own health care by doing things such as stepping on a scale to be weighed. She also has been involved in piping plover preservation efforts in Michigan. Her trip to Peru was partially supported by $2,500 from the Zoological Society of Milwaukee and by time-off days provided by the Zoo.
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