Antarctic penguins had an advantage over those living in highest latitudes: they were far from human populations and poachers who were responsible for killing thousands of penguins around the world every year in the past. Unfortunately, in some cases, no even remoteness stopped the killing of some penguins.
Penguin hunt is ancient. It is possible that the native peoples of New Zealand and southern Africa, Australia and South America have regularly killed those nesting near them; not as entertainment, but as a form of subsistence. Since they have few natural predators to flee from and they cannot fly, catching them is relatively easy.
Typically, the body of a penguin provides oil, eggs, meat, bones, feathers and skin. This latter, although it may not seem as useful as the skin of Arctic mammals, is thick and has been used to make several garments.
From the first sightings of penguins in the fifteenth century, Europeans began to hunt them at massive quantities. The practice increased over the following centuries, and seal hunters also added penguins to their infamous industry. Those hunters used mainly the fat, from which they could obtain an expensive oil.
The nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were the most prolific in commercial penguin hunting. At that time, its oil was an economically valuable resource for being useful as fuel, lighting material and for tanning leather. Also, the skin was demanded to make handbags, slippers, and hats, and the feathers were used to fill pillows and mattresses or decorate some clothing. Also, the eggs were more valued than the meat, although this did not always imply killing the penguins.
Some persons of that times were infamously known for this practice. Joseph Hatch, a British politician, owned a major company in New Zealand that hunted marine mammals to obtain oil during the second half of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. His company is responsible for the death of at least 2 million penguins in more than 30 years.
Penguin’s meat was not as wanted as the fat. Besides native tribes, the Western society did not have penguin meat in the refrigerator for its consumption; In fact, it was more likely that sailors eat it. When the penguins were hunted specifically to eat them, the meat was salted and dried by the sailors and consumed weeks and months later. A famous photograph, taken during the voyage of the icebreaker Endurance, shows a cook after preparing an emperor penguin (Aptenodytes forsteri).
However, it seems that it was a life-saving resource for some people. For example, the explorer Ernest Shackleton stranded for five months on the Antarctic sea ice without food and with a crew hunger reaching unsuspected levels survived when they saw thousands of penguins on the Elephant Island and improvised sleds and other objects to hunt them.
For all these reasons, the populations of these birds began to decline rapidly due to hunting. In 1867, a company killed about 405,000 king penguins (Aptenodytes patagonicus) to obtain their fat. During 100 years, the king penguin population of Macquarie Island reduced drastically due to the hunting, and some colonies disappeared completely. In the Falkland Islands, about 2.5 million penguins died in only 16 years. In fact, the king penguins of the Heard and Malvinas Islands disappeared, and it took up to 80 years before colonies were re-established.
In general, ancient explorers could kill up to 3,000 penguins to stock up on oil, eggs, meat and feathers over the few months of a trip.
Commercial penguin hunting has declined due to the boom in other energy sources and the laws that prohibit it. However, some people still practice it stealthily and illegally, which contributes to threaten some species.
In 1918, the penguin oil industry stopped as result of public protests and new cheaper alternatives, but it continues illegally and as a form of living in some places, although there is always people who still try to do it commercially. For example, in the early 1980s, a Japanese company asked permission from the Antarctic board to hunt them down and obtain fur, meat, and oil on the southern shores of Argentina, but the organization rejected the petition.
Fishers from the Indian Ocean occasionally catch them, not for consumption, but to use them as bait.
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