Tourist lights campfire next to threatened penguin colony

By Rebecca Fox

DoC biodiversity ranger Mel Young holds a yellow-eyed penguin, which died from unknown causes. Photo / Peter McIntosh
DoC biodiversity ranger Mel Young holds a yellow-eyed penguin, which died from unknown causes. Photo / Peter McIntosh

Discovering a tourist had lit a campfire in the dunes at Sandfly Bay right next to a threatened yellow-eyed penguin colony was the last straw for Otago volunteer Pat Dean.

With mystery still surrounding what killed at least 56 yellow-eyed penguin adults along Otago Peninsula beaches, the possibility a fire could get out of control and whip through the colony enraged the Department of Conservation and its volunteers.

"What an idiot. He could have burnt the whole place down . . . especially given the rough trot we've had,'' Ms Dean said.

DoC ranger Mel Young said the fire risk was high along the coast, especially with a westerly onshore wind. A fire in a penguin colony further south in 1995 wiped out a colony.

"Given we've had to take six breeding adults out of there [Sandfly Bay] dead recently, I can't believe it.''

Ms Dean, who has volunteered for six summers at Sandfly Bay, said she approached the German tourist when she saw smoke billowing up from the dunes where the public were asked not to go.

"I shot up the dunes, yelling for him to put it out. He had his tent up and a sturdy fire going under the shelter of marram grass.''

She kicked sand on the fire and dragged the main log down the beach to the water.

The tourist, who had walked to the beach, was urged to leave.

DoC biodiversity programme manager Dave Agnew said it was another stress those working with the yellow-eyed penguins did not need after having to rescue underweight chicks and pick up their dead parents.

Tests at the Cawthron Institute to see if a marine biotoxin had caused the penguin deaths had come back negative, so environmental testing, including deep water testing in known foraging sites, would take place next week.

On the positive side, no dead penguins had been found in the last three days, he said.

Volunteers, DoC staff, the Yellow-eyed Penguin Trust and tour operators would continue to scour the beaches during the next week.

- Otago Daily Times

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