Flight of the Penguins   

How do you airlift hundreds of stranded birds?

A rescued penguin in Brazil

More than a thousand juvenile Patagonian penguins have washed up on the northern shores of Brazil this year for reasons scientists have yet to comprehend fully. Over the weekend, hundreds of the stranded birds were airlifted to the southernmost tip of the country and released into the South Atlantic Ocean, close to their native territory. How exactly do you get that many penguins on a plane?

You put them in crates, 23 birds to a box. On Friday, the Brazilian government’s environmental authority loaded 399 Magellanic penguins onto a C-130 Hercules transport plane on loan from the Air Force. The penguins left from a marine-life treatment center in Salvador, in the northern state of Bahia, where most of them had been living for the past two months. (Some 70 birds joined them from a treatment center in Vitoria; they were transported in the cargo hold of a commercial flight.) Before boarding the military plane, the penguins were fed, watered, given antifungal medication, and tagged with bands for future identification. Then they were flown down to another rehabilitation center in the southern city of Pelotas. Accompanying them on the 5.5 hour flight were a handful of military personnel and approximately 10 veterinarians and biologists from various environmental organizations.

On Saturday, after an overnight stay in the Pelotas center—where they were fed and watered once again—the penguins were placed back in the crates, lifted onto large trucks, and driven down to the beach, where a movable pen had been set up. Most of the penguins were then transferred into the pen and herded into the sea. (A few dozen were kept back due to medical concerns, though all the birds survived the flight.) You can watch a video of the beach release here.

Many of the penguins that washed ashore up north perished before they could be returned home. Representatives for the International Fund for Animal Welfare, one of the primary NGOs involved in the airlifting, estimate that half of the 1,600 penguins found in the Bahia region since July were already dead by the time they washed ashore; another 300 died in rehabilitation. The remaining birds were treated for emaciation, anemia, and worm infestations over the course of several months. Before they were allowed to board the Hercules plane this weekend, birds had to be given a clean bill of health by IFAW veterinarians—this involved checking their weight and the condition of their lungs, mouth, feet, and eyes as well as making sure their feather covers were still waterproof. Roughly 100 birds that didn’t pass inspection remain at the Salvador center, where they will continue to be cared for until they can be released.

This weekend’s flight was the largest penguin airlift in Brazilian history, but the largest penguin airlift ever took place in 2000, when 10,000 to 15,000 birds were transported to clean water after a massive oil spill near Cape Town, South Africa. Other, more pedestrian animals have also been rescued in large numbers by plane: After Hurricane Katrina, Texas oil tycoon T. Boone Pickens and his wife, Madeleine, paid $50,000 to charter a Continental Airlines flight to take 100 cats and dogs to safety in California. In 2006, 300 cats and dogs orphaned by the Israel-Hezbollah conflict were flown from Lebanon to Las Vegas in a special Emirates cargo plane.

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Explainer thanks Michael Booth, Christopher Cutter, and Valeria Ruoppolo of the International Fund for Animal Welfare.