Like the vanishing polar bear, the decline in the penguin population is the canary in the coal mine, warning us that something is going wrong on our planet?but this time the problem isn’t climate change.

Oil pollution, depletion of fisheries and rampant coastline development are what is threatening breeding habitats for many penguin species. Biologist Dee Boersma says, “The fate of all species is to go extinct, but there are some species that go extinct before their time and we are facing that possibility with some penguins.”

Boersma notes that there are 16 to 19 penguin species, and most penguins are at 43 geographical sites, virtually all in Antarctica. But for most of these colonies, so little is known that even their population trends are a mystery. The result is that few people realized that many of them were experiencing sharp population declines until it was (almost) too late. She wants to see a broad international effort to check on the largest colonies of each penguin species regularly?at least every five years?to see how their populations are faring, what the greatest threats seem to be and what the changes mean for the health of the oceans.

In the case of whales, some species are vanishing, while others (like the humpbacks, are doing fine, and in this case, the disappearing whales are being hunted to death. In BBC news, Mark Kinver quotes ocean expert Randall Reeves as saying, “It shows that if you protect these animals then they can recover. I’m encouraged by the fact that several of the large whale species that had been in trouble for a long time have shown steady increases over recent decades?Humpbacks have really shown an ability to recover strongly from extremely intensive hunting.” Humpback hunting has been curtailed since they were put on the Endangered Species list. However, environmentalists are concerned that the fact that humpbacks are now doing fine will encourage countries like Japan, which sponsor whale hunts, to target them.

Boersma says, “It is the responsibility of governments to gather the information that helps us understand and make it available, but if they can’t do it then we need non-governmental organizations to step up.” Before it’s REALLY too late.

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