Friday, July 27, 2012

Hands-on with the Taranaki penguin guy

people can get an “oiled” bird's-eye view of surviving the Rena environmental disaster next week.
The man in charge of the wildlife hospital in the Bay of Plenty following the October 5 grounding of the Rena will be talking and showing pictures at Puke Ariki on Monday night.

“I will be taking people through the whole system as if they were an oiled bird,” says Brett Gartrell, Associate Professor at the New Zealand Wildlife Health Centre at Massey University.

The hospital cared for 420 birds that had been affected by the oil spill. Of those, 375 were released back into the wild. The rest died.

While that was about a 90 per cent survival rate of collected live birds, the impact on wildlife in the area was severe. “This is by far and away the largest oil spill in New Zealand and probably the worst place for it to happen, given the diversity of seabirds and marine mammals. That's why it's called the Bay of Plenty.”

For Dr Gartrell the worst thing was seeing the wildlife death toll first hand. “Early on, we laid out all the severely affected dead birds on a tarp and it was just an overwhelming sight to see because so many were unrecognisable because they were covered in so much oil,” he said.

“A huge number of birds were dying before we could get to them.”

In all, the wildlife rescuers picked up 2030 dead seabirds and 67 per cent of those were oiled.
There were more penguins found alive than dead, but the diving petrels were the hardest hit. About 880 died in the disaster.

About 150 wildlife experts and volunteers were involved at the height of the rescue and recuperation operation. “Most of those were local people who trained up on site. People were doing everything from cleaning oily cages, feeding birds to cleaning up penguin poo from enclosures. It was pretty glamorous work.”

The first birds covered in oil were collected on October 7, two days after the container ship ran aground on the Astrolabe Reef off the coast of Mt Maunganui. “We released the last bird on March 21 this year,” Dr Gartrell said.

“The ones that came in initially, their plumage was 100 per cent covered in oil. Later on, the oil levels dropped off but the birds coming in were a lot sicker because they had a lighter cover for a longer time.”

Oil takes away seabirds' waterproofing and thermal insulation. “If we didn't pick them up straight away they would either drown or die of hypothermia.”

Also, as the birds try to clean themselves, they ingest oil, which is toxic to them and affects the liver and kidney.

The 6pm talk, dubbed Wildlife Rescue Heroes, is presented as part of the 60 Springs programme, a partnership of Puke Ariki, Shell NZ and Taranaki Regional Council.

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