One side of the New Zealand $5 note features the mountaineer Sir Edmund Hillary and summit of Aoraki Mt Cook. The other side shows the yellow-eyed penguin, or hoiho.

Sir Ed is no longer with us, but remains a treasured New Zealander. Now there is startling evidence that within a few decades or even less, hoiho, a cherished but endangered seabird, may no longer be part of New Zealand's mainland fauna.

The endemic seabird has always been linked with the rugged Otago and Southland coasts, scuttling up from the sea to nest. For years the penguins have featured in advertising and branding.

Such is their attraction they have become a flagship species for nature-based tourism. According to one estimate, the presence of wildlife species on the Otago Peninsula generates $100 million a year in the regional economy.

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Hoiho then are an economic and biological asset. A new study however suggests their survival on the mainland is in peril. Climate change, disease, fishing, predation and human impacts including unregulated tourism together have taken their toll on penguin numbers.

There used to be an estimated 600 to 800 breeding pairs on the mainland, with perhaps twice that number on New Zealand's sub-Antarctic islands.

The researchers say their modelling shows the species will be gone from the mainland by 2060. The date of local extinction could be as soon as 2040 if recent poor breeding seasons continue.

Numbers have fallen so rapidly that the current population could be as low as 200 breeding pairs, with an alarming drop in the last 20 years.

One of the University of Otago scientists who worked on the study has reported that once busy breeding sites were now largely empty and silent, with just the odd lonely pair to be seen. The stark image is a long way from the cute airport promotion of the bellwether species.

Such an outcome could be a preventable disaster. The loss of any species is damaging for biodiversity and represents a failure in terms of the ethical requirements on societies to sustain wildlife.

The demise of yellow-eyed penguins would be particularly devastating because there are measures which could strengthen the resilience of the species against the remorseless impact of climate change.

Warmer seas affect the productivity of marine life, which in turn is making a difference to
the availability of fish which forms the penguins' basic diet.

Pollution from activities on land has degraded coastal water quality, directly impacting the marine environment. Stoats, ferrets, cats and domestic dogs have been blamed for fatal penguin attacks, and conservationists point the finger at fishing practices, with evidence that penguins drown in nets laid down in their foraging territory.

The precise impact of these pressures is unclear but clearly contribute to the loss of the species.

The researchers say for the penguins' sake the time for action is now, and are urging "immediate, bold and effective" action.

A clarion call has been sounded for hoiho, which means "noise shouter" because of its shrill clamour. It would be a tragedy to remain deaf to the warning.