Special protection for the emperor penguin

The emperor penguin is one of the iconic and endearing symbols of Antarctica. No film about the southern polar region can be without them, whether because of the beauty of the adults, with their yellowish-orange throat colouring, or because of the cute way in which the fluffy young penguins clumsily wobble across the snow. The emperor penguin, which can grow up to 120 centimetres tall and weigh up to 45 kilograms, is therefore not only the most impressive penguin species, but probably also the most well known. These flightless birds live only in Antarctica. The species is distributed relatively evenly around the southern continent and forms large colonies of several thousand birds. The colonies are usually found on so-called fast ice, which is the term for sea ice that is fastened to the coastline or to glaciers and rarely breaks up or melts even during the Antarctic summer. Currently, around 60 colonies with around 278,000 breeding pairs are known, although several of the less accessible colonies have only been discovered in the last few years with the help of high-resolution satellite images.

Emperor penguins have a specific diet. Only marine organisms are on the menu – predominantly fish, but also squid, krill and crustaceans. Emperor penguins are excellent divers. They can stay under water for up to 30 minutes and reach depths of up to 500 metres. For them it is therefore child’s play to catch their prey, which is found at a depth of between 50 and 250 metres.

Perfectly adapted to the cold

Emperor penguins are ideally adapted to life in the harsh conditions of Antarctica, with temperatures down to minus 50 degrees Celsius and strong icy winds. Thanks to their body structure and their dense coat of feathers they can constantly maintain a core temperature of 38 degrees Celsius. Emperor penguins are social creatures. In winter particularly, they huddle together in order to minimise heat loss. They even breed during the cold Antarctic winter, making them the only vertebrates in Antarctica to produce offspring during this season. In order to care for their young, emperor penguins need stable fast ice for at least nine months. Experts fear that the global warming caused by climate change could be the penguins’ downfall. If the fast ice should melt in the future, the emperor penguin would literally have the ground – in this case the ice – pulled from under its feet.

Threatened by climate change

Changes in the ice or the loss of fast ice, for example by ice breaking off, could lead to massive failure of the emperor penguins to breed and to the deaths of chicks, and could even be fatal for adult birds. Yet the loss of ice is not the only problem. An unusually broad stretch of fast ice or sea ice cover in the vicinity of a colony can likewise have serious consequences. The older birds are then forced to cover longer distances between their colony and their food sources in the ocean, which can significantly reduce breeding success. Stranded icebergs which block off access to the colony can also have fatal consequences. Moreover, climate change also affects the ecosystem and the food chains of the Southern Ocean. Food could become scarcer in future.

Desire for special protection status

Some of the Contracting Parties to the Antarctic Treaty, including Germany and the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR), have submitted a proposal to the Contracting Parties that the emperor penguin be designated a Specially Protected Species pursuant to Annex II of the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty. In this context, scientists have analysed current numbers of the species. They have drafted prognoses on the future distribution of the penguins, taking into account the various climate scenarios produced by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Depending on the climate scenario, a significant to extreme fall in the global number of emperor penguins is feared. Under the most pessimistic scenario, with CO2 emissions continuing to rise, up to 80 percent of all emperor penguins would die out by the end of the century. These prognoses could still lead to a uplisting of the endangered status from “near threatened” to “endangered” on the Red List of the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN).

The emperor penguin is towards the end of the food chain and therefore serves as a sort of early warning system: if its numbers decrease, it is a sign that the food chains in the ocean around Antarctica are changing and that the penguins’ food is growing scarce. By then, humanity ought to be seriously concerned about the marine ecosystems of the Southern Ocean. In view of these threats, SCAR has come to the conclusion that the Parties to the Antarctic Treaty need to develop special management and protection measures for the emperor penguin, which should take into account the best available scientific findings. Given the predicted impact of climate change, it is particularly crucial to reduce or eliminate other stress factors affecting emperor penguins. A working group of the Committee for Environmental Protection (CEP) formed specifically with this in mind is already examining a proposal to designate the emperor penguin a Specially Protected Species pursuant to Annex II of the Protocol. That also involves producing an initial draft of an action plan that already contains protection and management measures for emperor penguins.

So far, only the Antarctic Ross seal is included on the list of Specially Protected Species in Annex II of the Protocol. Such a designation not only activates a binding action plan for specially protected species but also requires special and strict protection by the Parties. Germany will work to ensure that the emperor penguin is granted this special protection status, as the first bird to obtain it, and will undertake all necessary steps to this end – even after the ATCM in Berlin.