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Credit: Uryadnikov Sergey

This World Penguin Day, we shine a light on the devastating link between factory farming and the plight of the penguin, and how we can turn around a growing crisis. 

Several years ago, I was lucky enough to travel to South Africa and walk amongst some of the animal kingdom’s most fascinating creatures: penguins. 

Dotted across the southern hemisphere, this flightless species of bird has waddled the earth’s surface for more than 60 million years, and in more recent times, captured the human imagination.

Their sleek, handsome black and white feathers may be what originally drew us in, but it’s their fascinating rituals and behaviours that have kept our love affair with penguins alive for so long. 

When the hit documentary ‘March of the Penguins’ came out in 2005, many of us got a glimpse into the lives of penguins for the first time. We saw their intricate mating rituals, the bonds with their colonies and the incredible lengths they go to protect their young. 

We also saw that despite their sometimes-clumsy appearance on land, they are expert swimmers and efficient hunters. They are as intriguing as they are inspiring.

Fighting for survival

That’s why I was thrilled to see the jackass penguin (named for their donkey-like honking) up-close and personal when I travelled to Boulders Beach in Cape Town several years ago.   

I wasn’t there as a marvelling tourist; I was researching for my book ‘Dead Zone: Where the Wild Things Were’ to understand how a species of animal, largely without prey, could be in such sharp decline. My fascination was tempered by an overwhelming feeling of dismay.

Many of us know that climate change is a huge threat to penguins, particularly in places like the Antarctic where the sea ice that Emperor and Adelie penguins use are being destroyed by warming temperatures. 

But what is not so widely known is that penguins in places like South Africa, Peru, and the Galapagos Islands, are fighting for survival as their food supplies dwindle – not least because of factory farming. 

You might wonder what cows, chickens and farmed salmon have to do with penguins; the answer: fishmeal. 

Most penguins live off a diet of pelagic fish – small fish like anchovies, sardines and red-eyes which they hunt in open coastal waters. But for years, these fish have been hoovered up in droves by commercial fisheries – nearly one-fifth of which globally is used to make cheap animal feed in the form of fishmeal for factory-farmed animals.  

Penguins enjoying the surf | Credit: Unknown

Numbers in decline

As a result, penguins in these areas have gone into drastic decline. Around 100 years ago off the coast of South Africa, there were between 3-4 million penguins. Now there are a mere 50,000 left in the wild. 

So severe is the situation, that some experts suggest that if nothing changes, African penguins could face extinction within a couple of decades.

Globally, more than 17 million tonnes of the pelagic fish are taken from the ocean each year – that’s around 90 billion individual fish. Penguins in Peru get a particularly raw deal. The country is the biggest player in the game, producing a third of the world’s fishmeal, much of it going to factory farmed animals in Europe and China. 

Even way down in the Antarctic, penguins aren’t safe. Every year, international fishing fleets sell around 200,000 tonnes of krill – the crustacean which penguins and other birds, fish and whales rely on – for animal feed, pet food and fishing bait. 

Demanding change to save the penguin

It’s a scenario of devastating proportions – but the plight of the penguins remains largely untold. That’s why, this World Penguin Day, I want to shed a light on this urgent – but entirely solvable problem. 

As consumers, concerned citizens and friends of animals, we must demand better – which means fighting for an end to factory farming. Instead, we need to move towards regenerative, agroecological farming methods that don’t rely on wasteful practices such as fishmeal for animal feed. 

We can all play our part three times a day through our food choices – choosing to eat less meat, dairy and fish – and doing our best to only eat those which have been reared responsibly and without cruelty, such as pasture-fed, free range or organic. 

The cost of factory farming is too dear to let it continue, particularly if we want to live in a world where animals like the penguin thrive as part of a healthy ecosystem for all to share. 

Compassion in World Farming is calling on the world’s most influential organisations, including the United Nations, to replace factory farming with a food system that respects animals, nurtures our planet and reduces the risk of pandemics. 

Please use this link to sign our petition and join the call for a future without factory farming.

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