Most people like penguins, or at least feel sympathy or respect for them. Unlike tigers, sharks, and bears, they do not inspire fear or concern. But in this old relationship, not everything has been fine.

The relationship between humans and penguins is as old as the relationship with other animals, except that it was only with the natives of the southern hemisphere who surely interacted with them first. The Europeans and Asians practically ignored these birds, and only noticed their presence when the exploration trips began. Since they had not seen such animals, they compared them to the great Auk a bird they were acquainted.

The reason why there are not many stories, legends or myths about penguins, is just because they usually live in remote places. Therefore, ancient cultures did not have contact with them often. Centuries later, penguins are so famous that they inspire characters in movies, books, video games, cartoons, television series, etc., to the extent that they have almost forgotten that once were massively killed to eat their meat, use their skin and extract their fat, among other applications. Either way, penguins are not spiteful; they rarely show fear toward people and can stay quietly close to them.

At present, there are some protected areas to keep the colonies and their eggs protected from hunting, which even today some practice. However, it is not surprising that certain individuals break the rules and enter the breeding areas to obtain a loot that, incidentally, does not have the same value as before. Today penguin meat is not commercially profitable, and there is no need to use its fat except in cases of survival. The good part: many people are making continuous efforts to protect these birds, with the intention that their existence will last through time.

A paramount part of understanding penguins and the conservation efforts is the research continuously done about them. Investigations in Antarctica go back a couple of centuries ago, and there are still some there. Therefore, scientists are in contact with them in one way or another, and sometimes place devices on them to monitor their movements. Thanks to technological advances, such devices are not a threat to their life anymore. Other studies are under way in other penguin colonies, such as South Africa, South America or New Zealand.

In recent decades, several travel agencies started organizing guided tours to the areas where penguins dwell; this provides people the opportunity to observe them free in their natural habitat to learn basic information about them. These visits should be careful and responsible, to avoid disturbing the lives of these birds. Some people, taking advantage of the penguins’ natural curiosity and their lack of fear to humans, get too close and even have fun playing with them. Although it seems an innocent act, it is not advisable for anyone to interact with them in this way, as they may become nervous or frightened and affect their behavior, even some may become a bit aggressive. Among all types, the crested penguins tend to be more temperamental. It is best to stay more than 3 meters away from them and observe them without interrupting their activities.

In 2012 a study published in the journal BMC Ecology, led by Vincent Viblanc of the University of Lausanne in Switzerland presented interesting data. According to observations of a colony of king penguins (Aptenodytes patagonicus) from a sub-Antarctic island that has had the human presence for at least 50 years, the tagged individuals had fewer chicks and a lower survival rate than the tagless ones, suggesting that some degree of stress affects their behavior and reproductive functions. This stress can be the result of a continuous presence of humans in their nesting sites, as well as the noise generated by them and the scientific activities.

Experts still do not know to what extent penguins can be affected by human disturbance, but it is a matter of transcendental importance. In sum, the relationship between the Homo sapiens and the Sphenisciformes is challenging. While most humans like penguins and have learned a lot about them, the real challenge is to maintain a healthy relationship that does not lead to negative consequences for them.




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