Penguins might be among the cutest birds on the planet, but for some people, the first thought isn’t how adorable they are, but whether or not you can eat them?
Although technically you could eat a penguin as they are not toxic to humans, it’s not possible to eat them due to international protection legislation, such as the Antarctic Treaty and CITES, which make it illegal to hunt penguins or their eggs. It is unlikely penguins would be palatable to humans as they have a marine diet of krill so they are very fishy and oily.
Keep reading to find out more about the legalities of eating penguins and why many Antarctic explorers disliked the taste. Alternatively, learn more about these aquatic seabirds by reading our 21 surprising facts about penguins.
- Can You Eat Penguin?
- What Do Penguin Taste Like?
- Is It Illegal to Hunt or Kill Penguins?
- Do People Eat Penguins?
- Can You Eat Penguin Eggs?
- Is It Legal to Eat a Penguin or Their Eggs?
- Related Questions
Can You Eat Penguin?
Let’s set aside the legality and moralities for one moment and look at whether penguins can be safely eaten by humans. For this, we have to look back at the records from old Antarctic expeditions. During the first winter expedition to Antarctica which began in 1987, the Belgian Antarctic Expedition became stuck in the ice and had to spend the winter there.
The ship’s crew began to develop scurvy, a common disease among explorers which we now know to be a vitamin C deficiency. Many explorers died from scurvy, in fact, it was often assumed that only 50% of sailors would make it back1 (source: Science History Institute).
As the crew started to die from prolonged eating of tinned food, the ship’s physician, Dr. Frederick Cook, realized that fresh meat was necessary so they ate penguins and seals that began approaching the ship2 (source: M. Schillat, Pemmican and penguin-breast, but no pie: Daily problems of Polar explorers during the Heroic Age of Antarctic exploration, 2006).
Those that refused to eat penguin due to its bad taste (more on this later) remained ill and eventually died which suggests that whilst penguins were safe for humans to eat penguins and had been in the past, it had been a last resort and critical to survival.
What Do Penguin Taste Like?
Now we know that you can eat penguins without dying, would you actually want to?
There are few people around who have tried penguin meat today and can reliably comment on their taste, so again we’ll have to refer back the records kept by Antarctic explorers. Dr. Frederick Cook, who prescribed penguins to the Belgian Antarctic Expedition in the story above, had some very strong views on their taste. According to records, he said;
“If it is possible to imagine a piece of beef, odiferous codfish and a canvas-backed duck roasted together in a pot, with blood and cod-liver oil for sauce, the illustration would be complete”
In fact, the taste was so awful that some crew members tried to ban them until they realized that they could not survive without it. Later in 1899, Dr. Cook also noted:
“We had tried the meat of the penguins, but to the majority, its flavor was still too fishy”
“We eat a little penguin with a show of pleasure, but most of us are quite tired of its marine flavor and fish-oil smoothness”.
So, what can we gather from this?
From Dr Cooks records we can conclude that whilst Penguins are edible to humans, they do not taste nice and they taste like an oily blend of beef, codfish, and duck.
Although penguins are birds, they taste very different from other birds that are commonly eaten such as chicken and turkey. This is due to the specialized marine diet of a penguin which includes fish, squid, and small crustaceans such as krill.
Is It Illegal to Hunt or Kill Penguins?
Yes, there are many pieces of legislation that make it illegal to hunt or kill penguins. These include the Antarctic Treaty, Marine Protected Areas (MPA’s), CITES, and the individual wildlife and environmental protection laws of most countries around the world.
It is often assumed that the Antarctic Treaty protects all penguins across the southern hemisphere where they live, however, this is not necessarily true. The treaty only protects penguins in Antarctica, but signatories have used it when deciding their own laws. The original treaty was signed in 1959 by the 12 countries that had previously laid claims to the continent as a way of ensuring peace and cooperation. To date, it has now been signed by 52 countries3 (source: Secretariat of the Antarctic Treaty).
The treaty was expanded further in 1998 with the Environmental Protocol which designates Antarctica as a nature reserve and provides protection to the animals there.
Specifically, under section 2(a), it prohibits ‘detrimental changes in the abundance of species’ and any ‘further jeopardy to endangered or threatened species’ so you cannot catch or eat wildlife there without permission.
The Antarctic Treaty itself only applies south of 60°S, so only penguins in Antarctica and sub-Antarctic islands are protected. However, most countries that have signed it, have now adopted similar protections to Antarctic species into their own laws or other international legislation.
Other Legislation Protecting Penguins from Hunting
The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) legislation provides specific international protection for the Humboldt Penguin and African Penguin due to their endangered status and high levels of poaching in the past4 (source: CITES).
2. Marine Protected Areas (MPA’s)
These are vast areas where strict rules apply on human activity. An MPA may be under the jurisdiction of specific countries such as the Macquarie Island MPA which protects the breeding ground of Royal Penguins in Australian waters.
Other MPAs may be in international waters and managed by organizations such as the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) who are responsible for the South Orkney Islands Southern Shelf MPA which covers parts of the southern ocean where many species of penguins are found.
3. Individual Country Legislation
Most countries around the world where penguins are bred now have specific laws that protect them. For example:
- Penguins are protected in New Zealand under the Wildlife Act 19535 (source: Department of Conservation, New Zealand Government).
- In Australia, penguins are protected as listed marine species under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 19996 (source: Australian Government).
- The Ecuadorian government’s Galápagos Special Law protects all wildlife in the Galapagos Islands, including the Galapagos Penguin7 (source: WWF).
Even outside of their natural habitat, most countries have some protection for penguins.
In the United States, the Antarctic Conservation Act 1978 makes it illegal to ‘take native mammals or birds’ from Antarctica without permits and this includes penguins. The law applies to those visiting Antarctica as well as citizens at home in the United States. This is largely an extension of the Antarctic Treaty to which the United States is a signatory8 (source: National Science Foundation).
Do People Eat Penguins?
No, although penguin meat is not toxic to humans, penguins are not eaten in any cuisine around the world. The main reason for this is that it is illegal to hunt penguins in places where they are abundant and generally perceived as immoral due to the endangered status of some species.
Even if it were legal, it would be difficult to have them as a regular menu item. Many of the larger birds live in Antarctica or sub-Antarctic islands which are far away so catching them in the wild would be difficult.
Farming them is not an option either as the logistics of farming any carnivorous bird are difficult because you also need access to large quantities of their prey and subsequently to manage the food for that animal.
This is known as ecological efficiency, and it’s typically estimated that around 10% of energy is passed up the food chain into the flesh of their predator. So for every level up the food chain you go, it takes 10 times the resources to produce.
This is why humans typically only eat herbivore or omnivore birds such as chickens, ducks, pheasant, turkey, quail, guineafowl, etc.
Can You Eat Penguin Eggs?
Penguin eggs are another type of food that explorers have relied on during their Antarctic explorations.
Notably, French explorer Jean-Baptiste Charcot and his men collected more than 8,000 eggs from a penguin colony to live on. According to their records, they weren’t feeling proud about taking their eggs and “tried to console the surviving parents with gramophone concerts”9 (source: J.C. Anthony, Endeavour, Vol 35, No. 4, 2011).
Penguin eggs are reported to taste fishy and are notable because they turn clear when they boil rather than white like most other birds’ eggs. This is due to a different ratio of glycoproteins in the eggs. In comparison, chicken eggs have more ovalbumin whereas penguins eggs have more prealbumin which is an evolutionary adaptation that allows them to survive fertile in the cold.
See our full article to find out more about the color of penguins and their eggs.
Is It Legal to Eat a Penguin or Their Eggs?
Yes, it is illegal to eat penguins or their eggs in most countries around the world. In the United States, for example, the Antarctic Conservation Act makes it illegal to handle native Antarctic birds, such as penguins and their eggs, in the United States10 (source: National Science Foundation).
Most of the countries that have signed the Antarctic Treaty have similar domestic legislation that prevents the consumption of penguins and penguin eggs from Antarctica in their countries.
The original signatories of the treaty were Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Chile, France, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa, the United Kingdom, the United States, and the USSR. However, since then, more than 40 other countries have joined11 (source: British Antarctic Survey).
Other international legislation also makes it illegal to eat penguins, for example, CITES which provides protection for the Humboldt and African Penguin. See earlier section of this article for more insight on this.
Are Penguins Poisonous to Eat?
No, penguins are not poisonous or toxic to humans and have been eaten by Antarctic explorers in the past. However, they do not taste nice and there are legal/ethical concerns regarding the endangered penguin species.
Can You Buy Penguin Meat?
No, due to the legal protections surrounding the hunting and trading of penguins, it’s not possible to buy penguin meat in most countries.
Do Eskimos Eat Penguins?
No, indigenous people, such as Eskimos, do not eat penguins. This is because Eskimos live in the Arctic at the northernmost part of the world whereas penguins live in the southern hemisphere from Antarctica to the equator.
However, some indigenous people have been known to eat other associated wild animals that might not otherwise be considered in a modern diet, for example, they are known for eating polar bears which can still result in disease12 (source: L.N. Møller, et al., Vet Parasitol 132(1-2). 2005).