More than seven years ago, Marcel Haenen (63), an experienced reporter on serious crime, was involved NRC, with the ranger through a nature reserve in New Zealand. There was a corpse, the swollen and discolored remains of a man who had been missing for weeks. While officers investigated, Haenen and his girlfriend were taken care of and offered professional victim assistance for the potentially traumatic experience.
Haenen was not depressed. On the contrary: he cheered. ‘On a beautiful summer day I had the opportunity to meet my favorite penguin. I am moved, grateful and, above all, very excited,” he writes carefree in his book Penguins and the peoplewhich has just been published.
This ‘history of a bird under attack’ is the reflection of Haenen’s lifelong fascination. “Not a day goes by in my life without looking at a few photos of penguins,” he describes his “condition” with some self-mockery. ‘After every meeting I get butterflies in my stomach.’
As a result, in his forty-year career at the newspaper, Haenen is not only the revealer in major cases such as the IRT affair and Desi Bouterse’s drug trafficking, but also the only ‘editor penguins’ in the country, if not in the world. His book is ‘a declaration of love with a mournful edge’.
First love. How did it come about?
‘With the Okkia weekly magazine for primary school students who were too young for the Tattoo. It contained stories about the Bible and Our Lord, but also about nature. I remember a cover with a penguin on it, the story was about penguins being friends of us humans.
‘I was the kind of boy who wanted to become an animal doctor when he grew up. My aunt Jojo had given me a subscription to the Spectrum Animal Encyclopedia, a growing series of weekly magazines in seven blue collection volumes. The first episode already contained a piece about the Adélie penguin. Four pages, with color photos. I was moved by that figure. That beauty: a penguin fits well in the suit, with subtle colors. He wears some yellow, orange and red, but very subdued and subdued. A strange creature: a bird with wings that cannot fly. A clumsy toddling toddler who turns into a ballet dancer underwater.
‘The problem at the time was: how did you find out more? I come from a simple family from Heerlen, I had to cycle all the way to my grandfather for an atlas. Then I saw: the penguin does not live around the corner, but at the southernmost points of the southern hemisphere. The chances of me ever seeing one in the wild were negligible. The fascination did not stop: as I delved more deeply, it grew into an addiction.’
That sounds quite serious.
‘It’s still increasing. Penguins have good taste: they live in the most beautiful places on earth. The eighteen species live in eighteen places, where there are usually no people. The Galapagos Islands, the south side of New Zealand, South Georgia – beautiful.
‘I think the most fitting word for the penguin is ‘well-mannered’. They seem to greet you when you meet them, they walk neatly around you. They are never aggressive, no human has ever been attacked by a penguin. I know of no more pleasant company than a colony of penguins.’
About the author
Jean-Pierre Geelen works in the science editorial office of de Volkskrant as nature and biodiversity editor. He wrote, among other things, the book Blind Finch – How I learned to look at birds.
So the chance that you will see penguins has turned out to be considerably greater than you thought as a little boy?
‘I saw my first penguin when I was 12, in Artis. A great experience. I saw my first wild penguin in 1988 while traveling in Admiralty Bay on the Antarctic Island of King George. A gentoo penguin turned its back on me and squirted a stream of white poop in my direction.
‘When I became a Latin America correspondent in 2003, I had to negotiate with the editors about the location. Mexico City or Sao Paolo were common, but I really wanted to go to penguin country. Argentina. Thanks to some opportunistic arguments, the newspaper fell for it and I was able to move to Buenos Aires. This way I could easily go to Antarctica and Patagonia with the whole family for five years to see penguins.
‘As editor penguins of NRC, a portfolio that, strangely enough, was still unoccupied, I was allowed to go to Antarctica with Greenpeace and ten international journalists. Incredibly exciting. Last spring I went there for the third time and saw metropolises of penguins. So beautiful that I’m still not tired of it.’
Now the mourning edge. The penguin is endangered. How bad is it?
‘Most penguin species are now so seriously endangered that they are likely to become largely extinct in the wild before the end of this century. Only species like the gentoo penguin are doing well: opportunists who adapt their food to changing circumstances.
‘The emperor penguin, the largest, is doomed. Not necessarily because of bird flu, which was recently in the news, but because of its special breeding process. At the beginning of winter, the emperor penguin lays one egg. The male goes to breed at -40 degrees, the females go out to eat. Thirty days there, thirty days back. That works out just fine: this way the females can take over when the egg hatches and the males go out for food. It then takes about eight to nine months to raise the chick. The fur of those fluff balls is not yet waterproof.
‘Now that the ice is melting earlier and faster due to warming, the chicks fall into the water and quickly die from the cold. It is now spring in Antarctica. A few weeks ago it was determined that cracks were already appearing in ice floes here and there. A colony has already disappeared this year, falling through the ice; all 61 colonies there are at risk.”
What do you do that?
‘I collect old lithographs (points to prints on the wall of his living room, ed.). Here: a great auk, which we already made extinct in the 19th century. There: the dodo. The two most famous walking birds have already disappeared.
‘Penguin bones have been found that are 61.6 million years old. European man only discovered them five hundred years ago. We have been able to largely eradicate them in less than 1 percent of their existence. Penguins live in deserted places where no people live. If animals cannot survive even there, this is very indicative of the condition of the earth. Every penguin is a thermometer in the globe. When even the penguin goes under, it is extremely disturbing.’
Is there anything that can be done about it?
‘Fisheries need to be tackled urgently. I’ve talked to fishermen in South Africa: they see penguins as… pain in the ass. There are 27 thousand people active in fishing there, more people than there are penguins left. Fish is also cheap food. ‘What’s the point of a penguin?’, they asked with a shrug when I started talking about the bird’s threats.
‘In 2016 I traveled to New Zealand to see the yellow-eyed penguin. My favorite, of which only a few hundred are still alive. I thought it was so important that I even voted for it The New York Times wrote a piece about it. Because Rabobank is very active in New Zealand, I decided to write to then chairman and former colleague Wiebe Draijer to do something for the penguin. His answer was that it was inappropriate to protect only one species. Later that year, Willem-Alexander went on a state visit. I wrote a letter to the king asking for help for the penguin. The answer was again nonsensical: due to the many requests, he could not comply. Later he allowed himself a photo opportunity with another rare flightless bird: the kiwi. Apparently that was possible.
‘Then I decided to write this book, an old plan. What I want is to get attention. Putting on the agenda. Not a pamphlet; I also wanted to show how beautiful the penguin is. Show, don’t tell. Yet I do not rule out going further: it is time for a penguin brigade, campaigning to save the penguin. I mean that seriously. The crisis messages piled up this year. First the news about impending bird flu. Then five thousand Magellanic penguins washed up starving on Uruguay. And so more posts followed as I completed this book. That made me sad. The extinction of these animals concerns everyone.’
In your book you criticize the increasing penguin tourism. At the same time, you participate in this yourself.
‘You can’t write about nature without looking at it. It wasn’t until I was in South Africa myself that I saw how sad the situation is there. Penguins walk the streets of the southern town of Simonstown, after being driven from their islands for collecting large quantities of their dung, which is highly fertile. Out of poverty they are now trying to colonize the mainland.
‘When I first visited Antarctica in 1988, there had been three thousand people there that year. Now there are a hundred thousand every year. Tourism is now tightly regulated: you have to disinfect your shoes, there are time slots. Of course that also leads to disruption. The penguin does not benefit from human visits. But those people do return as ambassadors for the animal kingdom. They are sometimes moved to tears by the beauty. The question is how many ambassadors the penguin needs. I think it’s better to leave them alone as much as possible. And yet: the greatest threat is not tourism, but fishing.’
Are there still glimmers of hope?
‘I have no fundamentalist views about zoos, but Artis is the studbook keeper of the African penguin. The birds there sometimes live for over thirty years, in the wild a maximum of fifteen. If there is a threat of inbreeding in a zoo, Artis will arrange for new penguins to come from another zoo.
‘Last year I spoke to the head of the scientific department of an organization that protects penguins in South Africa. He had just consulted with Artis about flying in genetically pure penguins from Europe. They are considering starting a kind of penguin factory there, after which young ones can be released on the mainland, with fences around them against leopards and tigers. They seem to be able to regard such a place as a new habitat. This is how they try to save the penguin in Africa. Understandable, but also very sad.’
Marcel Haenen: Penguins and the people – History of a beleaguered bird. Querido; 296 pages; €29.99.