On July 25, eight HUMBOLDT penguins got a new home in Mumbai. The city’s Veermata Jijabai Bhosale Udyan spent more than Rs 2 crore to acquire them from a South Korean zoo. The birds are native to the Pacific coast of South America. Their alienness is not lost on the zoo authorities who are sparing no effort to make them feel at home. They will be quarantined for three months in a 250 sq feet enclosure and then showcased in a 1,550 sq feet arena, which the zoo authorities claim will replicate features of the penguins’ natural homes in Chile and Peru.
How exactly does one replicate the cold Humboldt Current that gives the penguins their name and plays a critical role in their lives? The current, which flows northwards from Antarctica, pushing up nutrient rich waters from the Pacific’s lower depths, creates one of the most productive ecosystems in the world. The penguins feed on anchovies, sardines and krills, and nest in sand burrows or guano mounds. Though population estimates vary, conservationists say that nesting sites once attracted more than 2,000 birds, but less than 500 Humboldt penguins visit these sites to lay eggs now. The penguins, used to living in temperatures ranging from 4-17 degrees, will now find themselves in a city where temperatures rarely go below 20 degrees.
Penguins are a charismatic species. It is quite possible that the Humboldts too will draw large crowds. The zoo authorities claim that they will spend more than Rs 40 crore over five years for their upkeep. But the educative potential of the endeavour is doubtful, in times of the internet. Another caveat: The Mumbai zoo is known to have one of the worst mortality rates amongst zoological parks in the country.