Campaigners dressed as penguins marked World Penguin Day outside Norway's parliament. They called on Norway and other nations active in the Antarctic to do more to save the world penguin population from a rapid decline.
Penguins have captured people's imagination for years with their cute, human-like features and impressive dedication to each other and to their young. The birds have been popularized through documentaries, animated children's films and books. Yet human impact threatens the flightless birds' very existence, campaigners say.
"In many ways they're an iconic species, and every cute animal brings out some emotion in people," said Karoline Andaur, who heads WWF Norway's marine program.
"The problem is that it's not easy to identify the threats to penguins. You'd think that they're naturally protected just by being so far away from human beings. But they're under invisible threats like climate change, ocean acidification, overfishing."
"These [Antarctic] waters are home not only to penguins but also to the blue whale, which is earth's largest living creature, as well as to humpback whales, penguins, seals, and krill," Andaur adds.
Marine protection areas
Andaur was part of a group of campaigners marking World Penguin Day in front of the Norwegian parliament on Friday. They were representing the Antarctic Ocean Alliance, a coalition of more than 30 environmental organizations that is pushing for the creation of marine protection areas in large parts of the oceans surrounding the Antarctic.
"Although Antarctica is protected as a continent, the Antarctic ocean is not really protected," Truls Gulowsen, head of Greenpeace Norway, told DW.
"Penguins are under a real threat from climate change, which is changing the areas where they're living, but they're also under threat from krill fishing and other fishing that takes their food," he says.
Gulowsen and other activists say Norway, with its long history in the Antarctic and claims to large areas of the continent, is in a unique position to put pressure on other countries represented at the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR). The commission governs the international protection of Antarctic ecosystems.
Last October, Russia, Ukraine and China blocked proposed marine protection areas which would have safeguarded 1.6 million square kilometers of Antarctic seas. Campaigners say these countries want to protect their fisheries in the region. Another CCAMLR meeting is scheduled for October 2014.
Campaigners from the Arctic Ocean Alliance protest in front of Norway's parliament dressed as emperor penguins
"We know so little about the regional and local effects of fishing in the vulnerable Antarctic zone, which is a strong reason to be as careful as possible and to designate some large-scale marine reserves where penguins, fish and krill can thrive without any industrial interference," Truls Gulowsen explained.
Tracking an endangered icon
Penguins spend three quarters of their lives at sea, swimming huge distances over several months to feed on krill. Perhaps the most iconic of them all, the emperor penguin, is edging closer to becoming an endangered species.
"11 of the 18 species of penguin are already endangered," explained Klemens Pütz, the scientific director at the Falklands-based Antarctic Research Trust. Part of his work involves tracking penguins with radio transmitters to map their hunting grounds.
"Penguins are indicator species for the environment - they're at the very end of the food web. If the penguins are doing well, it's an indication that the food web is fine. If the penguins are not doing well, something is going wrong," Pütz told DW.
The emperor penguin colony, which featured in the Oscar-winning film March of the Penguins, has declined by 50 percent since the 1970s.
Scientists have long been studying the behavior of penguin populations to gain an understanding of the wider Antarctic ecosystem's health.
Changes in penguin populations in the Antarctic may indicate greater problems in the marine environments that support them, giving scientists a heads-up about the impact of global warming, over-fishing and other human activities. The Antarctic supports more than 10,000 unique species besides penguins, including the blue whale.
It is also estimated that the nutrient-rich waters surrounding the Antarctic sustain 75 percent of the world's marine life, because the water is transported by an enormous current into the northern hemisphere.