Aiding Penguins in Peru

“Walking into Punta San Juan Reserve in southern Peru is like being dumped on the cratered surface of the moon,” says Healther Neldner, an aviary keeper at the Milwaukee County Zoo (Wisconsin). The landscape is barren. No vegetation. Then you notice the wind. And the birds. You realize the craters are old guanay (sea bird) nests. Once you approach the cliffs facing the Pacific Ocean and look down onto the beaches, you can see wildlife. Depending on the cliff and the beach, it could be fur seals, sea lions, Humboldt penguins, Inca terns or Peruvian boobies. You’re here to help protect them, especially the penguins. In a few days you will be observing the guano harvest. Workers will arrive to collect and bag up dried bird droppings called guano, which is a nutrient-rich fertilizer used in farming.  

Heather Neldner cares for Humboldt penguins at the Milwaukee County Zoo

Heather Neldner cares for Humboldt penguins at the Milwaukee County Zoo (Wisconsin). She went to Peru in summer 2012 to protect them in the wild.

At the end of July 2012, Neldner flew to Peru to spend two weeks as an international observer during the guano harvest at the 133-acre Punta San Juan Reserve. This story on her experiences appeared in the Jan. 1, 2013, issue of Alive, the Zoological Society of Milwaukee’s member magazine. “This reserve has the largest Humboldt penguin colony in Peru (estimated at 5,000) and has among the highest rates of reproduction recorded in Peru for this threatened species,” says Neldner. She and other observers were there to ensure workers didn’t disturb the penguin nesting area, a project started after many Humboldts were found dead after the 1987 harvest. Guano harvests happen only once every four to six years and are monitored by conservationists under the supervision of the Peruvian government. Neldner’s trip was partially supported by $2,500 from the Zoological Society of Milwaukee and by time-off days provided by the Zoo.

Neldner was one of 27 foreign volunteers, each paired with a Peruvian volunteer. They did daily census counts of penguins, seals and sea lions. Counts ranged from a few animals to thousands, depending on the beach. “This was to serve as baseline data before the harvest, to see if populations changed when the harvest started,” she says. There was plenty to do. “We replaced a fence, cleaned a large stretch of beach, helped set up perimeters to protect the animals from harvest activities, helped set up signs for the beaches, and once the harvest started, monitored the harvest work and took GPS measurements of the harvested area at the end of each day.”

Neldner at a sea-lion beach in Peru

Neldner at a sea-lion beach in Peru.

The harvest of guano occurs next to a large colony of penguins. The birds need to pass behind the workers to get from their nesting areas down to the beach to fish. “Our biggest success was a movable penguin blind made out of a huge piece of fabric that we sewed together and attached to poles to create a wall for the birds to cross behind. They could still see the workers, but this seemingly solid wall gave them a sense of security,” she says. “To our surprise the penguins took to it and started crossing behind it as soon as it was put up.” By mid-September 2012 more than 4,000 tons of guano had been harvested. Volunteers helped to make sure that animals living and breeding within the reserve were not disturbed during the harvest.

For Heather Neldner’s more detailed observations on her experience, with more photos, click here.