What’s the News: After running aground last week on a remote island off the coast of South Africa, a freighter has leaked over 800 tons of fuel oil, coating an estimated 20,000 already-endangered penguins. “The scene at Nightingale [Island] is dreadful as there is an oil slick around the entire island,” said Tristan Conservation Officer Trevor Glass said in a statement. But even worse, authorities fear that the rats from the soybean-toting ship will swim to the island and destroy the bird population.
What’s the Context:
- The MS Oliva was traveling from Brazil to Singapore when it ran aground last Wednesday for unknown reasons, breaking up on Saturday and pouring some of its 1,500 tons of heavy oil into the surrounding waters.
- There are over 200,000 Northern Rockhopper Penguins (nearly half the world’s population of this species) on the Tristan Da Cunha archipelago, which includes Nightingale Island. This cleanup job is especially difficult because these islands lie 1,700 miles from the closest land, South Africa, making it much more difficult to launch a significant response—not good for birds who’re already listed on the international endangered list.
- The biggest danger to the penguins would be if if any rats make it from the ship to the island, as they can feast on baby birds unhindered. Like the birds from William Stolzenburg’s Rat Island—a gripping account of the challenges in ridding rats from infested islands—these remote birds “evolved in a world devoid of land-bound mammals,” and so are pretty much defenseless against rats.
- 80beats has covered oil spills in the past, including last year’s BP spill and its effects on wildlife.
- In that spill, the pelican was the oil-covered bird species that symbolized environmental disaster.
The Future Holds: Though a salvage tug left Cape Town, South Africa, last Thursday, the earliest it will arrive to help remove fuel is this Wednesday. With little to salvage, authorities say that cleanup is now the main task at hand. As Jay Holcomb, the director emeritus of the International Bird Rescue Research Center, told the New York Times, “Many of the birds have been oiled for over a week, which limits their chances of survival.”
Image: Wikimedia Commons / Arjan Haverkamp