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Penguins flock to rio de janeiro { January 18 2001 }

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Victims of global warming?
Displaced penguins surf into Rio

Special report: the weather
Special report: global warming

Alex Bellos in Rio de Janeiro
Thursday January 18, 2001
The Guardian

Tourists who are enjoying the glamour of Rio de Janeiro's beaches are being joined by some unexpected visitors - penguins from Patagonia.

Hundreds of half-starved penguins, many bearing the scars of shark bites, have been waddling ashore on some of the world's most famous tropical beaches - and experts suspect it could be the result of global warming.

When the birds arrive they are exhausted after the 2,000-mile swim from the penguin colonies on the Valdes Peninsula, near the Patagonian Welsh community of Trelew.

While most of the penguins are taken to the zoo to recover, some are being kept as pets by Brazilian fishermen, who feed them sardines and even walk them on a leash.

"You wouldn't believe how many people put these penguins in freezers when they rescue them," Valdir Ramos, chief mammal biologist at the Rio zoo, said. "Of course, they mostly die."

The occasional penguin paddling up to Brazil is nothing new. In a typical year about 40 stray Magellanic penguins used to arrive in the Rio area between June and August. But in 1999 the number rose, and last year about 300 arrived. "This is totally atypical," Mr Ramos added. "We can't talk about a 'penguin season' any more. It doesn't exist, they just keep coming."

While experts think the phenomenon may be a result of climatic changes, no one can agree on what kind of changes those are. Some believe it is because of unusually strong cold ocean currents, which improve the chances of a penguin surviving the journey.

They could also be following the migration of their staple food, anchovies. Another possibility is that, since almost all of those stranded are between six and eight months old, they were carried off by currents while learning to swim.

Rio's zoo collects many of the penguins and nurses them back to health; 16 are currently living in a refrigerated cabin and dozens more are in the zoo's infirmaries. In Sao Paulo three other zoos have created new penguin aquariums to receive the birds.

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