Had they spent longer studying these birds that didn’t act like birds, the explorers might have named them for any number of their unique qualities—their swimming speeds or their ability to get around on land without legs or wings. Pinguim is Portuguese for fat which perhaps refers to the oil derived by slaughtering penguins or to their girth. In Welsh, pen gwyn means white head, a term that humans gave to the Northern Hemisphere penguin species before slaughtering it into extinction. On their long monotonous Antarctica tours, the earliest explorers killed penguins for their meat and eggs that they preferred to less tasty culinary options. It wasn’t until centuries later that the birds began being killed commercially to harvest their oil, feathers, meat and eggs.
Sad for tourists on Antarctica tours, they won’t be standing eye to eye with the largest of the penguin species that once lived here, last thought to exist in the Miocene period, and among the forty penguin species that have become extinct.
Because of commercial exploitation, in modern times, the easily-caught and incapacitated penguins began to decline, some almost to the point of extinction before governments took action. Penguins inhabiting the land and waters of Antarctica south of the 60S parallel receive protection under the Antarctic Treaty. Many environmental organizations throughout the world are working to protect the penguin species whose populations are not stable. The International Penguin Conservation Working Group, comprised of scientists and institutions, was established in 2000 to promote penguin education, help coordinate research efforts and raise funds for conservation.
Instead of killing penguins, today humans mostly watch them, travel to Argentina to walk among the Magellanic species or observe several different species on Antarctica tours. That penguins used to be thrown on the fire live to keep it burning shows how much our sensibilities have changed. We adore them, turn them into movie stars and manufacture cuddly stuffed animals in tuxedo garb to resemble them. Though theirs is a tough life, in some ways, it is a golden age for penguins.