A New Zealand town has built the country’s first tunnel for penguins to halt the decline of its native bird population.
Kororas, also known as “fairy penguins,” are the smallest of their kind in the world. Native to NZ and found on the South Pacific coastline, their numbers have been in decline in recent years. This is because while kororas fish at sea, they make their nests inland and need to cross urban areas to get to them.
In Oamaru on New Zealand’s South Island, locals noticed that a particular road near the harbour seemed to be a main route for kororas. Tourism Waitaki Limited General Manager Jason Gaskill said that the road was very busy, especially in summer when the penguins are very active and have their chicks.
The area is not only popular with penguins. Thousands of tourists come to Oamaru Harbour to see the birds each hatching season. Gaskill said that for this reason it was necessary to create space where people, penguins, and vehicles, could move without harming each other.
Blue Penguin Colony research scientist Dr Philippa Agnew said that “At the boat ramp each evening during the summer, the penguins face crowds of people trying to get close to them and also traffic trying to use the same road – an unfortunate reality of urban living.” Agnew came up with the idea of a tunnel under the road to make the kororas lives easier.
The tunnel is the 1st one for New Zealand’s penguins and a great number of companies and local authorities donated goods and labor to make it happen.
Gaskill says that the feedback has been positive from almost everyone. Especially from the most important stakeholders, the kororas themselves, who are already using it.
Road to recovery
Professor of Comparative Endocrinology at New Zealand’s Massey University, John Cockrem, has been carrying out research on Oamaru’s penguins.
He says that people in that community were initially worried that the underpass might have a negative influence on the harbour’s natural beauty. Locals were also concerned that tourists would be unable to watch the penguins roam freely.
After the success of the underpass, Cockrem is going to propose more colonies to be established in NZ. He suggests that establishing underpasses in other areas where there are a lot of penguins could help put the species on the road to recovery.