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Penguins ‘enrich our lives’: Q&A with Pablo Borboroglu, protector of penguins

Pablo Borboroglu with a Magellanic penguin

Pablo Borboroglu with a Magellanic penguin on the Falkland Islands. Image courtesy of Pablo Borboroglu.

  • Pablo Garcia Borboroglu, a marine biologist from Patagonia, Argentina, was recently awarded the 2023 Indianapolis Prize for his work in protecting penguins around the world.
  • Penguins face many threats, including pollution, human disturbance, and the impacts of fisheries and climate change.
  • Borboroglu has helped protect penguins through various actions, including establishing marine and terrestrial protected areas, conservation research programs, and educational programs.

When Pablo Garcia Borboroglu first laid eyes on a wild penguin colony in Patagonia, Argentina, he experienced two things at once: a sense of extraordinary wonder for these wild animals, and shock because of what was happening to them.

“In the province where I live here in Patagonia, 40,000 penguins die per year due to oil spills,” Borboroglu told Mongabay. “You would go to the coast, and you would find dead penguins covered in oil or penguins that were dying.”

Borboroglu initially had no intention of working in conservation science, but he set up a rehabilitation center to help penguins impacted by the oil spills. He also refocused his career on marine biology and conservation, and used his scientific knowledge to help protect penguins around the world. Not only were penguins threatened by oil spills, but they faced many other threats, including plastic pollution, human disturbance, and the impacts of fisheries and climate change.

In a career that spans more than three decades, Borboroglu has helped protect 13 million hectares (32 million acres) of penguin marine and terrestrial habitat in Argentina, an area home to about 40% of the world’s population of Magellanic penguins (Spheniscus magellanicus). In 2009, he founded the Global Penguin Society, the first and only international science-based coalition focused on the conservation of penguins. He also co-founded the Penguin Specialist Group at the IUCN, the global wildlife conservation authority, and helped run conservation education programs that have reached hundreds of thousands of students and community members across Latin America.

Earlier this year, Borboroglu won the 2023 Indianapolis Prize, informally known as the Nobel Prize for animal conservation, with a $250,000 monetary award. Borboroglu is the first recipient of the award from the Global South.

Three Magellanic penguins.
Borboroglu has helped protect 13 million hectares (32 million acres) of penguin marine and terrestrial habitat in Argentina, an area home to about 40% of the world’s population of Magellanic penguins (Spheniscus magellanicus). Image by Jacqueline Deely.

Mongabay’s Elizabeth Claire Alberts spoke with Borboroglu via video call in June, about a month after he received the Indianapolis Award. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Mongabay: How did you fall in love with penguins? I read that you learned about penguins through your grandmother and that she used to travel to the colonies in Patagonia with horses and wagons.

Pablo Borboroglu: Yes, the first connection was through my grandmother. When you are a kid, you receive things differently, particularly from your parents or grandmother, so that was a special connection. It transformed into something bigger when I visited the wild penguin colony for the first time, and I was surrounded by that colony of almost half a million penguins. The experience was amazing. The energy in a penguin colony is really overwhelming in a good way. That was the eureka moment. I was about 19.

But in those years, I was also shocked because in the province where I live here in Patagonia, 40,000 penguins died per year due to oil spills. You would go to the coast, and you would find dead penguins covered in oil or penguins that were dying, and that is a really sad thing to see. In 1991, there was a huge oil spill here where 17,000 penguins died in two months. That was a tragedy. I used to collect them from the beach and take them to a small rehabilitation center that I built. I learned about biological issues, and I was also working as a tour guide for foreign people. One thing led to another. I started working in conservation, talking to people about the issues that penguins face and all the things we could do.

My work also attracted the media’s attention because, until then, politicians didn’t want to recognize that oil spills were an issue. But all the media attention, plus all the interest of the public, really increased the visibility of this issue. Working with other conservation organizations on this issue, the oil tanker lanes have moved further offshore. There are security measures that detect oil spills quickly. Now, I would say that no more than 20 individual [penguins] die per year due to oil. So you go from 40,000 to 20. That is a good conservation story to tell because, normally, conservation stories are depressing or sad.

Pablo Borboroglu
In 2009, Borboroglu founded the Global Penguin Society, the first and only international science-based coalition focused on the conservation of penguins. Image courtesy of Pablo Borboroglu.

Mongabay: Did you always know you would become a biologist?

Pablo Borboroglu: No, I am not the kind of biologist who always knew that I would work in biology or who explored butterflies — that was not me. I lived in an environment surrounded by nature, and my parents connected me to nature, but I wanted to be an ambassador. That’s why I studied different languages and law for two years. But in Argentina, you must be a lawyer to go into diplomacy. I didn’t like that, so then I explored other ways. But that part of my life was very useful to what I do right now.

Mongabay: Penguins can live in extreme conditions, so what makes them so vulnerable to climate change?

Pablo Borboroglu: We did a great study last year with 40 colleagues in which we studied the origin and the evolution of all the penguins. We studied something called the evolutionary rate, which is the speed at which penguins can adapt. Over 60 million years ago or so, penguins could adapt very quickly to the circumstances. That’s why they could conquer new environments and were so successful as a group. But then that speed slowed down. Now, penguins have the slowest adaptation speed for living birds … and the pace of current global warming will far exceed the ability of penguins to adapt.

One of the issues with penguins also is that they have specific features that make them more sensitive to climate change. They lay one or two eggs only per nest per year. Some penguins, like the king penguins [Aptenodytes patagonicus], spend up to 15 months to raise one chick. If they lose the eggs or the chicks, they lose an entire year or more of their lives. They don’t fly. They depend on food that is uncertain in terms of where and when it is in the ocean. Of course, they live in colonies, which is good for some things, but it also increases their vulnerability because if there is an oil spill, for example, all of them will be affected by that.

King penguins (Aptenodytes patagonicus) on South Georgia Island.
King penguins (Aptenodytes patagonicus) on South Georgia Island. King penguins spend up to 15 months to raise one chick, says Borboroglu. Image by Jacqueline Deely.

On top of that, penguins accumulate problems with fisheries, which could be competition for food or bycatch because they get entangled in fishing nets. Now they are facing plastic pollution as well. And when they come on land, they face many issues with human disturbance. Not everybody loves or respects penguins. Other problems include coastal development and, in some cases, the introduction of new predators. Penguins evolved in predator-free environments, mostly islands … but human beings, as we were exploring and colonizing, introduced a lot of animals. For example, New Zealand has millions of possums. They are predators, and penguins don’t have the strategies to defend themselves.

And on top of this, we have climate change. In Antarctica, climate change is disrupting and modifying the pattern of ice formation and melting, affecting the habitat penguins need for food and breeding. And outside of Antarctica, climate change is changing food availability close to the colonies.

Mongabay: What populations are the most resilient to these human-caused changes?

Pablo Borboroglu: It’s interesting because sometimes you see the same species acting differently in different areas. For example, king penguins are not doing well in some islands in the south of Africa — they’re declining because climate change is moving the food away. But they’re coming back to the colonies in South America. In South America, they were all killed 100 years ago to make penguin oil. But now they’re slowly coming back to the original colonies.

Then … within the penguin group, you have some species that are very abundant, with over 4 million pairs, and [in] some others, there are only 1,500 pairs on the planet … like the yellow-eyed penguin [Megadyptes antipodes] in New Zealand, or the Galápagos penguin [Spheniscus mendiculus], the population is less than 2,000 pairs.

One case that is really concerning now is the African penguin [Spheniscus demersus]. A hundred years ago, there were about 2.2 million breeders, and now we have less than 20,000 because in the middle of the last century, a million eggs were collected for consumption. Then there were over 50 huge oil spills, killing thousands of birds. Then some fisheries competed with them for their food source. And now climate change. So we never gave them a chance to recover. They’re going to disappear unless we really do something.

On the contrary, one species is called the winner of climate  change, which is the gentoo penguin [Pygoscelis papua]. The gentoo penguin population is not large, but they have specific features that make them thrive under the current climate change scenario. For example, they start breeding early in the year and outcompete other penguins that begin later. If they lose eggs, they can re-lay the eggs, so that’s a good advantage because they only lose part of the season. And then they also can feed the chicks later compared to other penguins.

An Adélie penguin (Pygoscelis adeliae) with its chick.
Penguins have the slowest adaptation speed for living birds, according to Borboroglu. Image by Jacqueline Deely.

Mongabay: With the work that you’re doing, what outcomes are you hoping to achieve for penguins?

Pablo Borboroglu: We have three areas of work. One area is our own projects, where we collect scientific information to guide conservation action. We also fund projects. For example, we may partner with governments to create a protected area. We provide experts: lawyers, facilitators, and whatever we need. We get international funding to afford the costs of workshops, travel and surveys to get more scientific information. That’s how we were able to protect 32 million acres of habitat for penguins in the ocean and on land that benefits at least 2.5 million penguins.

Then we have a huge education program. It started as a local program because we realized that in most places where penguins live, people in the closest towns and cities have never been able to visit them. So far, we have taken 8,000 kids and members of the communities to visit those penguin colonies. But at some point, we said, “This is OK, but we also need to reach global audiences.” So that’s how we started working with other partners like National Geographic or Disneynature. And through their platforms, we can reach millions of people through campaigns linked to penguins, but it could be about plastic pollution, clean energies, oil, pollution, and many different things. That’s the good thing about penguins — they can open the soul of people and trigger a change in their behavior.

Penguins in the sunset.
Borboroglu says it’s possible to reach millions of people through campaigns linked to penguins.  Image courtesy of Pablo Borboroglu.

Mongabay: What positive effects have you seen by protecting penguins?

Pablo Borboroglu: We always have different projects. Like right now, we have a huge project to create a protected area of 600,000 acres [243,000 hectares] in the ocean and on land [in Patagonia]. When we discovered a penguin colony there 15 years ago, there were 12 penguins there. It was severely impacted by humans. People used to go fish, throw a lot of garbage, and set bushes on fire to make barbecues. They were taking dogs; they were hunting. You name it, lots of problems. In the beginning, the government didn’t have the tools to protect the penguins. So we closed the gate and started our research. People were coming with guns, threatening us, cutting the iron fences, making a lot of problems for us. But we could secure the habitat for the penguins, and the penguins started to come.

Last year, after 15 years of our protection, our census showed over 8,000 breeders. So that’s a great example of how wildlife and nature respond when you implement conservation actions. As David Attenborough says, nature can recover if we give nature a chance. So, in this case, we gave penguins a chance. And this is a huge, amazing colony where we take a lot of kids for our educational activities. Every year we do a cleanup campaign to remove plastics with over 100 adolescents every time. When we arrive in the morning, plastic is in the nests, all along the shore. When we leave, everything is neat and tidy. That’s a fantastic experience for them. It generates hope and connects them in a positive way to the environment, showing them the power that we have.

Everybody wins with conservation. And this is part of our message in developing countries. You know, there are about 300 places on the planet where you can visit penguins in the wild. They generate hundreds of millions of dollars for those economies. So on top of the importance of conservation and the value of nature and the intrinsic value of those species, we also trigger the fact that penguins, through ecotourism, generate a lot of income. So if you keep your environment clean and healthy and your populations safe, it creates a spillover effect on the general economy.

A Magellanic penguin.
Borboroglu says large oil and mineral developments, including deep-sea mining, could impact penguins in the future. Image by Jacqueline Deely.

Mongabay: What are the biggest challenges for penguins in the future?

Pablo Borboroglu: One thing that concerns me is oil and mineral developments in the future. In Argentina, we are really concerned and working hard to stop the huge plans to develop oil along the continental shelf, which is about 3,000 kilometers [1,900 miles] long. But on top of that, we see the effects [of oil]. Nobody can deny that climate change is happening with all the wildfires in Argentina and all over the planet, and it’s really crazy to plan to continue burning even more fossil fuels. But I’m also concerned about deep-sea mining. It can have a huge impact on everything, not only the distribution of food, but it disrupts all these oceanographic processes and the productivity of those areas. The impact would be massive.

And, of course, climate change. Climate change is increasing the frequency of heat waves and also the intensity and duration of heat waves. At one of the colonies close to where I live, a temperature of 44° Celsius was recorded, or about 110° Fahrenheit. That’s a lethal temperature for penguins. Parents were leaving their nests, which they never do, leaving their chicks. Some penguin nests are 1 kilometer [0.6 miles] inland, so they were walking to the shore to refresh themselves, and at least in one area, 300 healthy penguins died in the heat trying to get there. So this is something that is happening more and more. Heat waves are also triggering wildfires, and it seems that penguins cannot recognize the fire as a threat. Contrary to other species, they don’t run away; they stay in their nests until they die. This happened in Australia during the wildfires. It also happened here in Patagonia.

I’m also concerned about the increasing human population in some places. It’s not necessarily the increasing population, but the decision to make developments for money. And in many cases, we don’t have proper legislation. Also, we still don’t have decent laws to protect wildlife from being killed in Argentina. So you cannot prosecute the people that are responsible for those harms.

A southern rockhopper penguin with its chick.
Borboroglu says the creation of protected areas can have a positive impact on penguins. Image by Jacqueline Deely.

Mongabay: With all these issues, current and future, what gives you hope to keep going?

Pablo Borboroglu: What gives me hope is that I can see the positive effects of conservation actions with my own eyes. Creating protected areas has been very beneficial for penguins, and you can see a colony thriving. The other thing that gives me hope is that I see young people caring more about the environment than my generation. People don’t need to be biologists to do conservation. We all have a role to play. We need bookkeepers, architects, engineers and social psychologists. We’re almost 8 billion people on this planet. If everyone can do one action, the impact is huge at the end of the day. I’m also hopeful because I see the progress in technology to solve problems that we created and avoid future problems. As I always say, there is hope for the planet if we change, and we need to change. And people don’t have to think, “Oh, there are these people working in conservation. So I can go on with my life.” No, there is hope if we all change.

Mongabay: How did it feel to receive the Indianapolis Prize?

Pablo Borboroglu: It’s amazing. Really unbelievable. I feel so honored and grateful for this recognition. As a conservationist, you often work alone. You are isolated in your country, sometimes facing big interests from the private sector or politicians … and sometimes you feel like it’s just you and your team working against all those interests. When you receive this award, it’s like a validation that what you do is important. It’s a way to legitimize everything we’ve been doing and recognize the effort we’ve made. And it is important because it opens many political doors in our countries and many areas where we work.

I was honored to be in the final with these amazing colleagues I admire so much. Also, this award was always given to colleagues from the States, from Europe or U.K.; it never went to Asia, Africa or Latin America. This is the first time somebody from the Global South has gotten it, so I’m honored.

Mongabay: If there’s one thing that you want the world to know about penguins, what would it be?

Pablo Borboroglu: Penguins enrich our lives and livelihoods in many ways. So if they make such a great effort to thrive and protect their chicks against all odds, we can all do our part, not only to help ourselves and to help our planet, but also to help penguins and all wildlife.

Banner image: Pablo Borboroglu with a Magellanic penguin on the Falkland Islands. Image courtesy of Pablo Borboroglu.

Elizabeth Claire Alberts is a senior staff writer for Mongabay. Follow her on Twitter @ECAlberts.

Related reading:

Rewilding public lands in Patagonia and beyond: Q&A with Kris Tompkins


Cole, T. L., Zhou, C., Fang, M., Pan, H., Ksepka, D. T., Fiddaman, S. R., … Zhang, G. (2022). Genomic insights into the secondary aquatic transition of penguins. Nature Communications, 13(1). doi:10.1038/s41467-022-31508-9

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