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Fears grow for yellow-eyed penguins as Catlins nesting sites dwindle

Fears continue to grow over just how close the rare yellow-eyed penguin is to extinction.

Yellow-eyed penguin nesting sites in Southland continue to dwindle and to make matters worse, no one knows why it's happening. 

Jaw-dropping scenery is a big drawcard for the thousands of tourists who visit the Catlins each year. 

But most say the region's biggest attraction is the wildlife. 

One of the rarest animals on tourists' wish lists is the yellow-eyed penguin, but this season they've been harder to find, with nesting birds in Curio Bay now down to just a single nest.

Bruce McKinlay, of the Department of Conservation (DOC), said it's a small habitat for yellow-eyed penguins, "and when you lose one out of three or one out of two, the percentages look pretty horrific".

It's an alarming trend down south, with birds either choosing not to nest this season or failing to return to their chicks after venturing out to sea - something that's got researchers stumped.

"The yellow-eyed penguins used to be the most predictable penguin species. They would leave in the morning, they would return at night. This year the penguin could do just that, or decide to stay at sea for two or three days, or even two weeks," yellow-eyed penguin researcher Thomas Mattern said.

While researchers still don't know why it's happening, they say human interaction with the birds is of increasing concern. 

DOC said 90 per cent of visitors and locals are keeping their distance - it's the other one per cent that are causing some serious harm.

"They're shouting at birds on the nest, they're getting really, really close, they're using selfie sticks to get photos in your face," Mr McKinlay said.

But it's not just tourists.

"There's not many tourists that bring their dogs, it's the locals that don't control theirs," Mr Mattern said.

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Penguin populations in Curio Bay in the Catlins have been hard hit, with just one nest left. Source: 1 NEWS