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Penguins face threats at sea and on land

Penguins face threats at sea and on land. It is an explosive combination.
14 of the 18 species of penguins in the world are at risk. Pablo García Borboroglu made it his mission to save them.

By Bruno Lobo, Visão
Published in March 2020icon-clockTime to read: 2min 9s

He says that he does not actually know if he was the one who chose the penguins or if they chose him, but Pablo García Borboroglu, now aged 50, knows that when he first visited a colony at the age of 18, he was amazed.

“Popi”, as he was always called, grew up listening to stories about penguins. His grandparents fled Turkey at the beginning of the last century and settled in Comodoro Rivadavia in Argentina. It was in this small town, on the Atlantic coast of Patagonia, that his grandmother discovered these small creatures and fell in love with them. Later, now in Mar del Plata, she passed on that love to her grandson who, when he grew up, became the world's biggest expert in the species — and its great defender.

After that first encounter, it was not long until the young Borboroglu made the decision to take a sabbatical leave from his studies, joining a legion of volunteers who sought to save the penguins from oil spills. At that time, between 1980 and 1990, oil spills were quite frequent, killing on average 40,000 penguins a year. Pablo and all the other volunteers washed the animals with soap and water, saving thousands. He never managed to bring a single responsible party to court, but he brought the public's attention to the subject and forced the government to create routes for the tankers further away from the coast and make companies change their practices. A big victory, but it did not get the penguins out of danger.

Suffice to say that today, in addition to the global pollution that makes these animals seek food increasingly further away, penguins are one of the bird species most affected by the fishing industry and whose territory is steadily diminishing in size. So much so, that the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has classified 14 of the 18 existing species as being under threat. “More than half of the species of penguins on the planet are at risk. They face threats at sea and on land. It is an explosive combination,” he explains.

In the forefront, Borboroglu is the first to say that “helping the penguins is helping the oceans and helping the oceans is helping ourselves,” but not even he could foresee how, when he disembarked on a small island lost somewhere in the immensity of Argentine Patagonia. It is a classic story: He was there to help penguins, she was there to save sea lions. They fell in love, married, had two children and lived happily ever after. Or, at least until now. In 2009, his wife, Laura Reyes, was also key to the creation of the Global Penguin Society (GPS). Since then, the organisation has managed to protect 3,230,000 hectares of sea and land area. An area larger than Belgium, greater than one third of Portugal.

The world is paying attention to his work and, in 2018, Borboroglu received a Whitley Gold Award, considered the green Oscar of conservation. At the “Voice for the Planet” awards, Sir David Attenborough explained that “people love penguins, but are unaware of their decline. The GPS came up with ways to solve that problem.” Last year, it was Rolex’s turn to recognise this biologist as an Associate Laureate. The Rolex Awards for Enterprise, awarded by a group of renowned international scientists, highlights this global initiative that covers three continents, more effective conservation strategies and especially the involvement of local communities in the fight.
Particularly young people, who are actively participating in conservation actions. So far, they have involved more than 7,000 children because, as he likes to say, “change begins with them. And it begins now”.

Article published in the Portuguese magazine VISÃO, within the scope of the Ocean of Hope partnership, an initiative to give voice to the extraordinary individuals and organisations working to build a more sustainable planet and future.


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