Grounded Ship Leaking Oil—& Potentially Rats—Threatens Endangered Penguins

By Patrick Morgan | March 23, 2011 1:27 pm

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

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Living World
  • BimotaGrrrl

    Fix your typo: Engangered should be Endangered.

  • marilyn terrell

    Andrew Evans took this heartbreaking footage of the disaster here, with oil-drenched rockhopper penguins and baby seals:

  • ChuckB

    When one species (humans for example) overpopulates, it always threatens the existance of other species. The mechanism may differ, but the effect is always the same. We commiserate over the fact, but we do nothing about it. No more than the rats will when they destroy the penguins — and ultimately themselves.

  • Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor)

    @Bimota: Fixed. Keyboard was affected by oil spill.

    @Marilyn: Thanks for the link, though it is quite sad.

  • Donna Rogers

    What a terrible event. The American media was all over the BP oil disaster but I haven’t heard anything about THIS event.

  • tiddas

    Ran aground for “unknown reasons”!?! That island is isolated amidst the vastest seas on earth.

    Ran aground — picking up endangered species for the Singapore market you mean.

    “Unknown reasons”. Oh, I have no idea how we hit that rock in the middle of water, water everywhere.

    Oh, poor rescued “sailors” — “sailors” who hit a rock in the middle of the ocean! “Sailors” who are global animal trade criminal profiteeers.

    The birds are crazy valuable . . . wow . . . who’d a thunk. Where’s oceanic Interpol when you need them? oh right, international police couldn’t care less about anything except making way for more trade.

    These animal robbing mafia “sailors” destroy natural heritage sites and our oceans.

    Let’s count how many species go extinct from this little adventure in supplying the world’s rarest resources to capitalist billionaire pigs.


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!


80beats is DISCOVER's news aggregator, weaving together the choicest tidbits from the best articles covering the day's most compelling topics.

See More

Collapse bottom bar