Why the African Penguin?
The African penguin is one of the species to which the Agreement on the Conservation of African–Eurasian Migratory Waterbirds (AEWA) applies. In November 2013 the African penguin was listed as endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. In September 2010 it was listed as endangered under the US Endangered Species Act. There are currently 45 000 individuals predicted across the population range of the African penguin, which occurs in Namibia and South Africa. Unfortunately, the population is still in decline, and it is predicted that the African penguin will be extinct in the wild by 2025.
The largest population of the African penguin is in Algoa bay, with roughly 21 000 individuals living on St. Croix island and a further 5 700 individuals living on Bird Island, making Algoa bay the biggest population of African penguin in the world.
Why the major decline?
- Over fishing
The declining population of African penguins is largely attributed to food shortages, due to large catches of sardines by commercial purse-seine fisheries. Sardine is the staple diet of the African penguin and due to over fishing of this commodity and the poor management of these fish stocks, there is a severe shortage of this fish left in the ocean. Due to these shortages in sardine, adult penguins are not able to feed and they are not able to bring food back to their chicks, which they are raising on the island. This results in malnourishment, starvation and death, not only in the adult population, but in the chicks too.
- Climate Change
Due to climate change, the cold currents in which penguins find sardines (their major food source), have been pushed further out to sea. This has caused an eastward shift in sardine and anchovy populations. This has forced the penguin to swim over 60 km to find food for themselves and their chicks. Due to this extra distance that penguins have to swim, they digest the fish before they get back to feed their chicks. These chicks then become undernourished and take longer to fledge.
Mortality from oil spills is serious and the proximity of major penguin colonies to large industrial harbours in concerning. In addition, most of the population is confined to just two areas, St. Croix island and Robben island which are both near to major shipping ports. There has been a dramatic increase in the number of birds oiled since 1990: two individual oil spills (in 1994 and 2000) have killed over 30,000 individuals.
- 1994 MV Apollo Sea disaster
African penguin casualties were significant following the sinking of the MV Apollo Sea and subsequent oil slick in 1994. 10,000 penguins were collected and cleaned, of which less than half survived.
- 2000 MV Treasure crisis
Disaster struck on 23 June 2000, when the iron ore tanker MV Treasure sank between Robben Island and Dassen Island, South Africa. It released 1,300 tons of fuel oil, causing an unprecedented coastal bird crisis, oiling 19,000 adult penguins at the height of the best breeding season on record for this vulnerable species. The oiled birds were brought to an abandoned train repair warehouse in Cape Town to be cared for. An additional 19,500 un-oiled penguins were removed from Dassen Island and other areas before they became oiled, and were released about 800 kilometers east of Cape Town, at SAMREC in Port Elizabeth. This gave workers enough time to clean up the oiled waters and shores before the birds could complete their long swim home (which took the penguins between one and three weeks).
Some of the penguins were named and radio-tracked as they swam back to their breeding grounds. Tens of thousands of volunteers helped with the rescue and rehabilitation process, which was overseen by IFAW (International Fund for Animal Welfare) and the South African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB), and took more than three months to complete. This was the largest animal rescue event in history; more than 91% of the penguins were successfully rehabilitated and released - an amazing feat that could not have been accomplished without such a tremendous international response.
Due to the positive outcome of African penguins being raised in captivity after tragedies, such as the Treasure oil spill, the species is considered a good candidate for a captive-breeding program which aims to release offspring into the wild; however, worries about the spread of new strains of avian malaria is a major concerning factor in the situation.
Bringing the birds inland led to the exposure of parasites and vector species such as mosquitoes, specifically avian malaria which has caused 27% of the rehabilitated penguins deaths annually.
- Human disturbance
Human disturbance and egg-collecting appear to have been additional factors in the species' decline. Tourists cause nest-burrows to collapse, and their presence in large numbers may deter young birds from breeding.
Historically, guano collection was a major cause of disturbance at many colonies and its removal has deprived penguins of nest-burrowing sites, causing birds to nest on open ground where they are more vulnerable to the elements; such as heat stress, severe storms and predation.
As recently as the mid-20th century, penguin eggs were considered a delicacy and were still being collected for sale. Unfortunately, the practice was to smash eggs found a few days prior to gathering, to ensure that only fresh ones were sold. This added to the drastic decline of the penguin population around the coast.
- Competition and predation
The cape fur seal competes with penguins for food, displaces them from breeding sites and is a periodic predator. Sharks take birds at sea, and on occasion, orca’s. Kelp gulls and feral cats, mongooses, caracal and genets prey on eggs and chicks on islands and land based colonies.
It’s not all bad news
Many organisations such as SANCCOB, Dyer Island Conservation Trust, SAMREC and Raggy Charters with the Penguin Research Fund in Port Elizabeth are working to halt the decline of the African penguin. Measures include monitoring population trends, hand-rearing and releasing abandoned chicks, establishing artificial nests and proclaiming marine reserves in which fishing is prohibited.
A modeling exercise conducted in 2003 by the University of Cape Town's Percy Fitz Patrick Institute of African Ornithology found that rehabilitating oiled African penguins has resulted in the current population being 19 percent larger than it would have been in the absence of SANCCOB's and SAMREC’s rehabilitation efforts.