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Like the polar bear on the opposite pole, the emperor penguin endures almost unfathomable hardships to breed and nurture each new generation — fasting for months through the planet’s harshest winter weather, sustained only by stored energy from a long-ago feed from the sea. If its onshore waddle doesn’t exactly confer nobility on the emperor, its remarkable underwater grace surely does. Yet this extraordinary bird faces new and extraordinary pressures — most ominously, the rapid acceleration of global warming. And the emperor is not alone: more than half of the world’s 19 penguin species are in danger of extinction since krill, the keystone of the Antarctic marine food chain, has declined by as much 80 percent since the 1970s over large areas of the Southern Ocean. The chief culprit: global warming. Many penguin species also compete with industrial fisheries for food, and their survival and reproduction rely on a delicate balance, to which a single disruption can become catastrophic.

Determined to keep global warming from finally tipping the odds too heavily against the survival of the planet’s penguins, the Center filed a scientific petition in 2006 to gain Endangered Species Act protection for 12 of the most imperiled penguin species. In July 2007, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found that 10 species — the emperor, erect-crested, Fiordland crested, white-flippered, macaroni, Humboldt, African, yellow-eyed, and northern and southern rockhopper penguins — may warrant federal protection. But the Service missed its deadline to actually bestow that protection on any of the petitioned-for penguins, prompting the Center to file suit in February 2008 to compel the agency to take action.

As a result, in December 2008 the Service proposed protection for seven species — the African, yellow-eyed, white-flippered, Fiordland crested, Humboldt, erect-crested and southern rockhopper penguins — but denied it for three, the emperor, macaroni and northern rockhopper penguins. The next fall, we and Turtle Island Restoration Network warned we’d sue to protect emperors and rockhoppers. And when the Service still hadn’t moved forward on protecting seven of the penguins it found might warrant listing, we sued in March 2010; the same year, six penguins were listed: the Humboldt, yellow-eyed, white-flippered, Fiordland crested, erect-crested and African penguins. The next year, southern rockhoppers in Australia and New Zealand were listed as threatened. We’re still seeking federal help for emperor penguins — in November 2011, we filed a petition for their protection, and now the Fish and Wildlife Service has finally agreed to do scientific review of their status for consideration of protection.

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2010 federal Endangered Species Act listing for African penguin
2010 federal Endangered Species Act listing for five penguins
2006 listing petition



African penguin
Emperor penguin
Erect-crested penguin
Fiordland crested penguin
Humboldt penguin
Macaroni penguin
Rockhopper penguins
Royal penguin
Snares crested penguin
White-flippered penguin
Yellow-eyed penguin

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Climate Law Institute
Global Warming and Endangered Species Initiative
The Endangered Species Act

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Contact: Kassie Siegel

Photo by Michael Van Woert, NOAA