Unhappy times for hit penguin in 'Happy Feet'

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He's Lovelace the rockhopper, one of the stars of this winter's hit animated comedy about dancing penguins, Happy Feet. But in real life, he's in trouble.

Unmistakable in his wacky, yellow-feathered headdress - common to all rockhopper penguins - Lovelace, voiced in the movie by Robin Williams, looks the part as the alternative penguin guru of Adelie Land who answers any question for the price of a pebble.

But in the world at large, something catastrophic is happening to his kind, it was revealed yesterday. Populations of the rockhopper, Eudyptes chrysocome, have taken a massive tumble - possibly because of climate change - according to the latest survey figures from the Falkland Island environmental group, Falklands Conservation.

The organisation, a partner of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) within BirdLife International, says the latest survey of penguins in the Falkland Islands, for 2005-06, reveals a sharp decline since the beginning of the millennium as rockhopper penguin numbers have plunged from 298,496 pairs in the islands in 2000 to 210,418 pairs now - almost a 30 per cent decline in five years.

However, figures from 1932 suggest the population of rockhopper penguins then measured around one-and-a-half million pairs - which would mean today's figures represent a decline of around 85 per cent.

"The decline of the rockhopper penguin in the Falkland Islands suggests a massive shift in the ecology of the Southern Ocean, possibly linked to climate change," said Dr Geoff Hilton, an RSPB biologist. "It is really alarming that these huge declines - involving the disappearance of literally millions of birds - are happening on islands all round the Southern Ocean, and yet we don't really know what is going wrong."

In the 2002-03 breeding season, the waters around the Falkland Islands were affected by a harmful algal bloom which poisoned many penguins. Surveys have shown that some species, including the gentoo penguin, have been able to recover from the worst effects of this event, but that the populations of rockhopper penguins are still struggling.

Nic Huin, of Falklands Conservation, said: "Although the factors driving the long-term decline of rockhopper penguins are a little elusive, these survey results show that this species seems unable to bounce back in good years from the population crashes that happen in bad years. This is gravely worrying for the future of this little bird, which has its most important world population in the Falkland Islands."

The Falklands, one of the UK's 14 overseas territories, are home to four nesting species of penguin besides the rockhopper, also hosting the macaroni penguin, the gentoo penguin, the king penguin and the Magellanic penguin.

The rockhopper is one of the world's 17 penguin species. Listed as "vulnerable" by the World Conservation Union, it is one of 10 species facing global extinction.

In the movie, Lovelace the rockhopper guru dispenses advice to Mumble, the emperor penguin kicked out his colony for being able to dance, but not sing.

You heard. That's a Hollywood script for you. Don't ask any more, just go and see it.

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