Have You Ever Seen, A Penguin Come to Tea?

Why would a Penguin ever come to tea? But so goes the nursery rhyme my foster-grandchild and I are currently hooked on.

If I were to write the poem, I would say

‘Have you ever seen, a penguin out at sea’.

Would make a bit more sense.

Of course, the other argument is, why should nursery rhymes make sense?

6A7544E4-A7BF-48E0-9512-51C1F4F1AFDCBut that is not the subject of the blog today. April 25th is marked as World Penguin Day, and that is the occasion of the blog. This day coincides with the annual northern migration of Adelie penguins.

Any ‘Day’ is a way to focus attention and raise awareness about an issue. Penguins evoke immediate love and interest. And hence are a great species to highlight when it comes to conservation education in general, and education about the species in particular. Alarmingly, of the 17 recognized living species, 11 have been listed as Vulnerable or Endangered, and hence awareness about penguins is important. And talking about penguins also ensures we talk about the health of the waters where they spend 75 percent of their lives.

It was only very recently that I saw my first-ever penguins in the wild. It was an unforgettable experience—a visit to the Omaru Penguin Colony in New Zealand, where visitors can spend a few hours freezing on stands, waiting for Little Blue Penguins to come home to their colony for the night. And believe me, it was worth every chilly bone to see this phenomenon. Groups of ten or more penguins coming in over a period of about an hour, after spending the whole day in the waters feeding—for themselves and to regurgitate for their children. What a hard life! The Little Blue Penguins are really tiny, just about a foot high. And we were lucky enough to see pair of chicks—cuddly balls of down.

And to end, some trivia:

  • The origin of the word ‘penguin’ is not clear. It may either be derived from a synonym for ‘great auk’, a bird familiar to Europeans who thought penguins looked like auks when they first saw them. (Great auks are flightless birds not related to penguins. They became extinct in the 19th century).  Or it could be from the Latin pinguis, which means fat or oil.
  • Some prehistoric species of penguins stood almost as tall and heavy as an adult human. Today, the largest species, the Emperor Penguin, stands at about 3 1/2 feet.
  • Although except one, all species are found only in the Southern Hemisphere, most do not live in extreme cold areas like the Antarctic. Many are found in temperate areas too.
  • There are two names for penguin collectives—when there is a group of them in water, they are called a ‘raft’. When there is a group on land, it is called a ‘waddle’.

Here is to World Penguin Day, may their tribes increase!

–Meena

The Kardashian of Trees

Heroing and highlighting individual trees is a great way of drawing attention to trees in general, and to reinforce the value of nature, wildlife and biodiversity.

An example of a successful initiative in this direction is the  European Tree of the Year contest started in 2011, inspired by an older competition which originated in the Czech Republic in the late nineties. According to the Czech Environmental Partnership Foundation which started it all: ‘Tree of the Year is a contest looking for a tree with a story. The aim of the contest is to empower people and get local communities involved in the environmental and local heritage protection. We believe that by gathering around a tree, people are more likely to take action again in the future for other environmental causes and for the wellbeing of the community.’

The process of selecting the European Tree of the Year starts with a well set-out voting process at the national level of the participating countries (16 this year), and ends with a finale consisting of online voting to select from among the national winners.

Now the competition is moving to other parts of the world: In 2016, Sri Lanka started the Asian Tree of the Year, with India, Nepal, Malaysia and Singapore joining in soon after. Canada, Australia and Russia have also held national competitions, though not on an annual basis.

Beautiful old trees, with history and cultural connections to the community have found their spot under the sun through this process, and also generated a lot of public interest, involvement and learning.

Sounds good! But what has all this to do with the title?

CF37A480-1747-49E9-9F79-48FCA5BAC580The connection is a tree that is reputed to be the most instagrammed tree in New Zealand, almost a symbol of NZ tourism. On a recent trip there, we were urged to set aside time to see the tree, specifically around sunset. So we worked around our program to ensure we got to the spot—a stretch of a beach—well ahead. We drove past a few times, keenly looking at the beach. We could see some people, but nothing special in the way of trees. We asked natives and tourists alike, and they all pointed us to the same area which our GPS had shown us, and which we had passed, looking in vain for a landmark. We decided to make our way down to the beach anyway. Lo and behold, there were many, many people there, jostling for some spot (we could not figure out what the spot was for), all setting up professional looking camera equipment. It came to a pass when we had to ask a friendly-looking lady what everyone was waiting to photograph, where the famous tree was, and what it was about. She kindly pointed to this spindly willow tree, standing a few feet into the waters of the beautiful Wanaka Lake, against a beautiful background of majestic mountains. But the tree itself? In my mind, this will forever define and exemplify ‘under-whelming’. ‘Why is the tree famous’, we asked many around us in bewilderment. While there was some story of how it was part of a fence and had survived in the water for several years, the general consensus was that it was famous because it was famous! So famous , it even has its own insta handle #ThatWanakaTree.

Does the title begin to make sense?

But yes, surely is a lesson to countries like ours, where we have such unimaginable treasures of cultural and natural heritage, but simply are not able to create anywhere near a proportionate buzz!

–Meena