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Africa
10 Apr 2017

Saving Africa's only native penguin species

Africa’s only native penguin species is inching towards extinction due to local food shortages. Conservationists are now trying to reconnect penguin and prey

African Penguins © Shutterstock
African Penguins © Shutterstock
By Christina Hagen

Penguin: the word elicits images of snowy landscapes, icebergs and tightly huddled groups of penguins bracing the harshest of elements. One penguin species that bucks this cold climate trend is the hardy African Penguin Spheniscus demersus, found only on the south-western tip of Africa, in South Africa and Namibia. This species is adapted to warmer subtropical environments, often having to survive temperatures of over 30° C, likely never to see snow or ice.

The African Penguin population, once numbering in the millions, has been reduced to just 1% of its size in the 1900s. Historical egg collecting between 1900 and 1930 resulted in the removal of a staggering 13 million eggs from southern African islands. At the same time, the “white gold rush” for guano, harvested for fertiliser resulted in widespread habitat alteration.

In the space of just a few decades, the guano that had accumulated over thousands of years was removed. Instead of making well-insulated burrows in the guano, penguins are now forced to nest on the surface at most colonies, leaving eggs and chicks exposed to the elements and predation. By the time these two devastating practices were halted in the 1960s, the penguin population had been reduced to just 300,000 breeding birds.

Shortly thereafter a new threat appeared in the form of industrialised fishing for sardine – the African Penguins preferred prey. With the advent of new technologies, fish catches increased to never-before-seen levels. Just 20 years later, the sardine fishery had collapsed. Despite expectations that fishing would be forced to slow down, attentions instead shifted to the smaller, less profitable anchovy, the alternate prey available to the penguins.

Growing penguin chicks need a diet very high in lipids – something that sardine and anchovy provide. Not dissimilar to humans, research suggests that when seabird chicks are fed on lower quality “junk food”, they are slower to develop and can experience decreased cognitive ability, making it harder for the young birds to find food once they have fledged.

As if conditions for the penguins weren’t bad enough, in the 1990s the remaining sardine and anchovy fish shocks started shifting away from their areas of historical abundance. “Because breeding penguins are limited to a 40 km radius from attention-needing nests and chicks, the bulk of the fish have now shifted out of reach of the penguins”, explains Dr Ross Wanless, Seabird Division Manager at BirdLife South Africa.

Scientists aren’t sure what has caused this shift in distribution but it is likely that both climate change and high levels of fishing on the west coast have played a part. To counter this change in distribution, a novel and innovative project was started to investigate whether new penguin colonies can be established in the areas of high fish abundance.

“Extinct colonies of seabirds have been re-established for flying seabirds, such as the Atlantic Puffin in Maine and several species of petrel from New Zealand, but it has only been attempted once for a penguin species, and never for African Penguins”, says Wanless.

“This project has the potential to increase the penguin population and provide “insurance” by increasing the number of colonies, reducing vulnerability to catastrophic events.” BirdLife South Africa, with the support of several other local and international organisations, has identified two sites at which to attempt the establishment of penguin colonies.

“We’ve decided first to re-establish a colony which started naturally in 2003 but was prevented from taking hold due to predation by terrestrial predators”, says Wanless. "By setting up an effective predator-proof fence we plan to avoid that happening again.” Decoys and the playing of penguin calls will be used to attract birds in from sea and just-fledged chicks will be moved to the new areas to encourage them to return there to breed.

Once penguins start breeding in a colony they return there year after year – a trait which helps them find the same mate again – which is why young chicks need to be encouraged to breed at the new sites, before they chose somewhere else. The aim of the new colonies is to assist penguins to move to these relatively new regions of high food availability.

"While this process could occur naturally over several hundreds of years, we need to help it happen faster”, says Wanless. African Penguins also face a number of other threats, from predation to oil spills to the lack of nesting habitat, and there are conservation interventions in place to address these. Artificial nest boxes are provided to improve breeding success and rehabilitation centres have been set up to care for oiled and injured birds.

“But a lack of food remains the biggest challenge”, says Dr Taryn Morris, Coastal Seabirds Conservation Manager at BirdLife South Africa. “Our focus is on driving protection of their feeding grounds and working with fisheries and government to ensure the ecosystem needs are taken into account.”

The African Penguin is facing an uncertain future but there is a group of dedicated organisations and passionate individuals who are working to ensure the survival of the species. But by moving penguins closer to their food and trying to ensure there are more fish in the sea, we hope tip the balance in their favour.

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Christina Hagen is a Pamela Isdell Fellow of Penguin Conservation, BirdLife South Africa