There is perhaps no one on Earth that knows quite as much about penguins as Dr. Pablo Garcia Borboroglu. Starting in his own backyard of Patagonia, Argentina, Dr. Borboroglu has dedicated his life’s work to studying and protecting the world’s 18 different penguin species from the growing threats they are facing.
Dr. Borboroglu was recently named an Associate Laureate of ROLEX’s Awards for Enterprise, in which he will receive support for his work in protecting penguins around the world and understanding how they’re affected by climate change, fisheries, pollution, human disturbance and introduced predators. His actions will benefit all life in the ocean, and ultimately, on land as well.
Mission Blue got the opportunity to learn more about Dr. Borboroglu’s work and how he plans on getting the rest of the world enthusiastically involved in ocean conservation. His adoration for the fragile seabirds is undeniable when he speaks.
Mission Blue: Your work focuses on penguins– what is especially important about these species?
Pablo García Borboroglu: Penguins are important to study in order to better understand the main threats the oceans are facing, including climate change. This is because they have particular features that make them more vulnerable, more sensitive to these threats. Penguins are unique in the sense that they face threats not only in the ocean, like a marine animal, but also on land. This combination has made their populations very sensitive. They experience threats from marine pollution, competition with fisheries and bycatch when they get entangled in the nets during fishing operations. But then when they’re on land, they’re affected by human disturbance, while the introduction of unfamiliar predators has been detrimental to their populations in some areas.
Since they are so sensitive, they are excellent indicators of the health of the ocean. When we study them, we can have firsthand information about what is going on at that moment in the ocean. We can tell if it’s taking too long for them to find food since a huge negative effect of climate change is the reduction in the availability of food in the ocean.
MB: What inspired you to focus your work on penguins?
PGB: I work mainly in penguin conservation thanks to my grandmother. She used to live in Patagonia– where I live now– a hundred years ago. She used to go with horses and wagons to visit penguins. And in that same time, 1920 to 1930, they were harvesting sea lions and elephants seals. She was going to enjoy the penguins; participating in ecotourism a hundred years ago! So when I was small, she always told me stories about the penguins and about her experiences with them. When you’re little, those stories are magnificent! Somehow I think she left something in me that inspired me to devote my life’s work to protect them.
I didn’t originally plan to be a biologist. I wanted to be an ambassador and I studied law, but then something changed. I went to the south in the late 80’s, and was really shocked to find that 40,000 penguins die per year due to oil spills. I started to rehabilitate them and release them. I could see when I released the first one that I could make such a big difference for them. However, I realized that my good intentions weren’t enough. So I started to educate myself and study and I earned a Ph.D. Since then it’s been 30 years of a fantastic penguin ride.
MB: We hear a lot of negative news about climate change. What is something that brings you hope?
PGB: 10 years ago, I saw the need to create a conservation arm. I established the Global Penguin Society (GPS), an international organization that promotes the protection of all penguin species through science, management of penguin habitats and education. We use our findings in our scientific research to take action on the conservation side. We discover problems, but also we come up with the solutions. We get together with the governments, propose solutions and funding and they help us in our work. So far we’ve been able to help protect now over 32 million acres of habitat for penguins through the creation of protected areas and the elaboration of management plans for penguins.
After a couple of years, our education program at GPS started to really take off. We realized that most of the communities that live close to penguins in developing countries don’t know enough about them; they don’t necessarily value them. Those kids will stay forever in those towns– they will become the decision makers and they will decide on penguins’ fate. So far we have taken over 6,000 kids to visit penguin colonies and for most of them to see the ocean for the first time. But we also engage global audiences, for example through the National Geographic Explorers online Classroom that allows us to reach thousands of kids, transmitting online through a satellite connection from the most remote penguin colonies on Earth.
My hope comes from seeing the new generations; they’re so much more aware of the environment. When I was 10– I’m 50 now– it was not an issue. Nobody was talking about the environment. My grandmother was special because she was telling me her stories, but we didn’t have the information back then that we do now. My hope also comes from a combination of the new generations with the emerging technologies because I think that many fantastic solutions will work to solve the problems that we’ve already created and work to avoid new problems, as well.
MB: What do you wish the public understood about penguins?
PGB: About half of the world’s penguin species are considered threatened. There are a grand total of 18 penguin species, which is quite surprising for most people, probably because movies and documentaries mostly focus on the Antarctic penguins– maybe people find them more interesting. But the truth is, most of the penguins live outside of Antarctica. According to the International Union of The Conservation of Nature, 10 of those species are endangered or vulnerable.
MB: What do you believe is necessary to influence positive change?
PGB: The goal when we work in conservation is to change the behavior of people. We cannot change the behavior of penguins to say, “Hey, there’s an oil spill ahead!” I was in New York for the launch of Disneynature’s movie Penguins. When Disneynature produces a new movie, they choose an organization to benefit. For Penguins, they chose us! It took them three years to film it, because they chose just one penguin, Steve, to follow. The audience followed along with that one penguin’s life and relationships, and it allowed them to really connect with the species as a whole. You have to appeal to emotion to change people’s behavior. With pure information, you won’t get that far. Movies are a fantastic way to tell stories, because my grandmother told me her stories about penguins, and I ended up dedicated my life to work for their conservation. Now with movies like this one, we’re telling that story about penguins to millions of kids, inspiring new generations of conservationists.
Social media is a powerful tool for change, as well. My son actually tweeted about my work, and he got 60,000 retweets. The President of Argentina saw it and called me to congratulate on the ROLEX and invite me to meet in person. It’s so incredible knowing that my work has caught his attention– the President of my country is thinking about conservation!
MB: You were chosen as an Associate Laureate of the ROLEX Awards for Enterprise. What are your next steps?
PGB: Our actions have benefitted more than 1.6 million penguins and now we need to scale up. Our next steps involve studying the penguins in Argentina, Chile and New Zealand. We’ll be researching on how and where they’re looking for food and see if there are overlapping with maritime traffic, fisheries, oil drilling and deep sea mining. Then we’ll assess if there’s a need to manage those activities more sustainably and create more protected areas. We also will be addressing the illegal trade of penguins. Different countries are opening new aquariums and they want penguins– charismatic animals– so we’ll be working to assess the nature of this issue. We also fostered the establishment of the Penguin Specialist Group in the IUCN, in which we’re working with scientists and conservationists to develop policies to better protect penguins. We’re supporting the development of a global penguin conservation agenda to identify the key things we need to address in terms of science and conservation. Finally, we’re working on increasing the visibility of penguin needs through the Global Penguin Society and securing further funding for our work.
Dr. Borboroglu describes in his ROLEX Awards for Enterprise finalist video, “In this work, we help not only penguins but also people and the entire planet.”