Activities in Europe

A weekend in Landau

... or a different kind of members meeting (once again)

Magdeburg 22th of July 2021.

The title already gives a hint: Pandemic and general assembly are not compatible! Also one „beak length“ distance, as I like to call it as a hobby penguinologist in reference to a well-known penguin researcher, is not a hundred per cent safety from a virus that has been influencing the lifes of all people in all countries for more than one and a half year.

In the hope of containing the pandemic, governments have imposed curfews, sometimes for months - also in Peru and Chile, the home of the Humboldt Penguin. The dangers threatening the penguins, however, existed and continue to exist: the (planned) construction of two ports for the mining industry, industrial fishing, pollution and overfishing of the seas and with it the endangerment of the penguins' habitat with its breeding and hunting grounds. But despite all the limitations and adversities, the tireless and courageous Sphenisco partners on site in Peru and Chile managed to adapt the efforts to protect the penguins to the current situation, to continue them and to involve the local population of all ages.

How I know that? Well, I have been interested in these wonderful, elegant-clever-cute animals for most of my life. There are „testimonies“ from my parents, as well as proof photos of me as a three year old girl beaming at the penguins in the zoo of my hometown. That I can spend hours and days blissfully observing the animals is no exaggeration (all those who know me better would confirm that!)

Being aware of the fact that the companions are not only cute but also endangered, worthy of protection and fascinating, I found my way to Sphenisco two years ago. Out of curiosity, conviction and to "have a look" at what "they" are doing. The answer: a whole lot! And with heart and soul. It really became clear to me on 27th of June 2020: my first Sphenisco members meeting. Due to the pandemic, it was held in online format (for the first time). I must admit that it was possibly an advantage for me, because the journey to Landau to a "bunch“ of people who were completely „unknown“ to me at the time was and is a journey across Germany. And it is absolutely worth it! In no time at all I realised this on that Saturday afternoon more than a year ago. There were people sitting in front of their computers who, as different as they were (or are), know quite a lot about (Humboldt-) penguins. And in the most sympathetic way possible: comprehensible, open-minded, committed. As insiders, because they observe and research the animals in zoos, animal parks and/or on the coasts and in the waters of South America. With and without a biology degree or doctorate. Interests counts. So I was or am exactly right at Sphenisco. And because it was so clear, it was also certain that my life partner and I would personally attend the members meeting in Landau in 2021.

However, a pandemic is not over just like that: vaccination, distance, ventilation, low incidence, ... or not. And so the board of directors made the decision at the beginning of June, certainly with a heavy heart: there would also be an online general meeting in 2021. But by then I had already booked a small holiday flat and travelling was possible. So in the morning of 24th of June, my life partner and I boarded the intercity train towards Landau. The "heart" of Sphenisco was of course informed and everyone was looking forward to the possibility of a joint meeting and also getting to know each other personally in threes or fours.

First we got an impression of Landau on our own initiative. We wandered extensively through the pretty city centre, adjacent parks where bird watching is excellent, the university campus and finally stood in front of the zoo. For the visit we had planned the whole Friday (and also Sunday), because from experience we are both very patient observers. And a whole lot of animals can be observed: from the tiny short-eared elephant shrew, to the socorro dove, palawan porcupines, philippine spotted deer, numerous primate species, benett kangaroos, the siberian tiger and a species of dwarf antelope with the curious name kirk's dwarf dikdik. Numerous lovingly designed information boards about the animals, the influence of humans on their (survival-) lifes and the importance of species conservation projects meander through the zoo and accompany the visitors. At the same time, numerous (pleasantly shaded) benches invite you to linger. Curator Christina invited us on a little tour of the zoo. We were allowed to say „hello“ to the friendly dromedaries in person and were provided with a bucket of crunchy fresh carrots, which the troop eat straight from our hands. Afterwards we went quickly (back) to the penguins, where we were already awaited by one of christina's colleagues, who is very familiar with the Landauer penguins. In his hands: an almost newly hatched, small, fluffy penguin with a huge head, just like all penguin chicks have. While the keeper was checking the condition of the tiny animal, we stood right next to it, affected and amazed. After the chick was returned to its sceptical parents in the nest, there was time for a chat with lots of insider information from the life of a keeper and that of the Landau penguins. A big thank you for this!

Friday evening, one day before the members meeting, we were invited to Gabriele and Werner Knauf's house. First live meeting, so to speak. A wonderful opportunity to end the day in pleasant temperatures with fresh air and a view of the beautiful garden with a glass of penguin wine and to get into conversation. Werner encouraged us to ask our questions the next day at the members meeting. And of course we had questions.

In advance, the board of directors had already summarised the most important activities, developments, results and progress of the last association year in short videos that were available to all members. It is hard for us to imagine the preparation time and excitement that must have gone into selecting the best images, video and sound sequences, interviewing collaborators in South America and New Zealand against a backdrop of considerable time difference and writing the most important information with precision. And there was no lack of excitement at Gabriele and Werner's on the eve of the online meeting: please let the technology work!

It did that perfectly. More and more small windows with known and partly for us still unknown faces opened in the meeting portal. Nancy, a committed environmental activist and close cooperation partner of Sphenisco, was also present from chile. I am deeply impressed by her work with the people on the ground and her approachable, serious and persistent manner. For her, protecting the environment seems to be the big picture she is concerned about. People and animals, the Humboldt Penguins, are a part of it. If we humans (even in seemingly distant europe) treat what nature has in store with respect, then there is enough safe living space and fresh food for every creature. It is so simple.

Research is also an important topic for and at Sphenisco. It's hard to believe that there are so many things we humans still don't know about (Humboldt) penguins. What do the animals do for days and months in the sea when they are not breeding? Very clearly: eat. But what else? Where do they swim to? What influence do humans have on their routes? How do they communicate with each other? How does the penguin actually know where it is or where it is supposed to go? Maybe there are sounds that keep penguins from dying as unwanted bycatch in fishing nets? Which research projects does Sphenisco continue to support? ... questions upon questions. The penguin researcher Klemens Pütz was with us again this year and was able to answer several questions. The scientists from the projects in New Zealand and Chile who were not present were excellently represented by the board of directors. If a question could not be answered, it was clear: not yet or being researched.

By the way: as soon as someone asks a question, suddenly many questions, topics and ideas come up that want to be asked and discussed. To everyone's surprise, the planned time frame was significantly exceeded. So in the end, it was not the technology that collapsed, but the members who fell off their chairs with their heads spinning. Well, it wasn't quite like that. But it is clear to everyone: there is much to discuss, explore and do. Best together and with each other. Next year for the discussion of the situation hopefully in person on the fourth Saturday of June in Landau. We will be there!... And until then, do what we can in the here and now, be mindful, make responsible (consumption-) choices and share the fascination for penguins.

K. B.

translated by Claudia Wirth

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