Thursday, January 1, 2004

Former hunters, they focus now on conserving species

By Dan Klepal
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] Attorneys Roger Fry and Len Weakley traveled to an island off Chile to count and study rockhopper penguins.
(Photo submitted)
Roger Fry and Len Weakley feel more at home in Hamilton County courtrooms than on a cold, wet deserted island off the coast of Chile.

But that's where the two civil attorneys with a downtown law firm found themselves in November, cordoning off sections of Isla Noir, a tiny dot in the Pacific Ocean just south of the Straits of Magellan.

The two were part of a five-man expedition to count the number of rockhopper penguins, while recording the types of plants and trees on the island, which is about 5 miles long by 11/2 miles wide and has never been inhabited by humans.

The population of rockhoppers has declined worldwide. In the important breeding grounds of the Falkland Islands, that decline has been 84 percent over the past 20 years. A similar decline is thought to have occurred in Chile. But Isla Noir is in such a treacherous area, with unpredictable wind and ocean patterns, that few researchers have made the trip.

Until November, that is, when five members of the local conservation group Feather Link made the dangerous journey and spent five days surrounded by the squawking, ankle-biting penguins.

Former Cincinnati Zoo director Ed Maruska was part of the journey.

What they found shocked scientists and non-scientists alike: more than 500,000 of the sea birds, which stop on the island to mate and raise their chicks. No one knows where the birds go upon leaving the island.

But the researchers' reception was less than warm.

"We were probably the first people these penguins ever saw," Fry said. "And they weren't impressed. They are aggressive birds, and they would continually come up and peck at our ankles, or whack us in the shins with their wings, which are really more like flippers."

Demonstrating that the island is an important area for the future of the species might help persuade the Chilean government to protect it against development or farming. The group from Feather Link also put radio transmitters on 20 of the birds, so that their movements can be tracked and important sources of food protected from over-fishing.

"Right now, the penguins own the island. Leaving it that way would be great," Fry said. "It's easy to imagine what ranching or the planting of vineyards would do to it if that were ever permitted."

David Oehler, curator of birds at the zoo and founder of Feather Link, was the expedition leader.

In many ways, he said, the trip to Isla Noir reflects the future of conservation. Researchers, he said, increasingly will have to seek out remote areas of the planet to get a truer picture of endangered animals' plight. And, he said, it is critically important to get non-scientists involved in saving wildlife.

"All of the easy parts of the world have been done," Oehler said. "But there are a lot of areas where we just don't know what's going on because it's so difficult to get there and perform research."

Isla Noir certainly fits that bill. The penguin population was estimated at 70,000 before this expedition, and Oehler said that was probably the best guess of a researcher who had never made the trip.

Feather Link's penguin count on Isla Noir is still unofficial. To get it, the researchers had to section off 10-foot squares on the island and record the number of birds, nests and amount of plant life. That information is being processed by the University of Cincinnati, and will be compared to enhanced aerial photographs of the island to come up with a scientific count of the island's rockhopper population during that one week in November.

Weakley said the experience has changed the way he views the world, even from the window of his law office.

"It was a once-in-a-lifetime thing," Weakley said. "Both Roger and I are avid outdoorsmen. In the past, we have been hunters. Now, we've pretty much dropped that interest in favor of conserving species. Now I look at it from the standpoint of what a microcosm I live in, and how much more there is outside that can be of interest. Perhaps I can be of some help."


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