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African Penguin Spheniscus demersus
BirdLife Species Champion Charl van der Merwe Trust
For information about BirdLife Species Champions and Species Guardians visit the BirdLife Preventing Extinctions Programme.

This species is classified as Endangered because it is undergoing a very rapid population decline, probably as a result of commercial fisheries and shifts in prey populations. This trend currently shows no sign of reversing, and immediate conservation action is required to prevent further declines.

Taxonomic source(s)
Dowsett, R. J.; Forbes-Watson, A. D. 1993. Checklist of birds of the Afrotropical and Malagasy regions. Tauraco Press, Li
Sibley, C. G.; Monroe, B. L. 1990. Distribution and taxonomy of birds of the world. Yale University Press, New Haven, USA.

60-70 cm. Medium-sized, black-and-white penguin. Adult black above, white below with variable amount of black spotting on breast and belly. Broad, black breast-band and black-and-white facial pattern diagnostic. Whitish bare skin over the eyes becomes bright pinkish-red in very hot conditions. Male has deeper, more robust bill. Juvenile initially dark slaty-blue above, turning browner and, in second and third year, shows varying amount of adult facial pattern. Similar spp. Very rarely, some individuals show a double black breast-band - indicative of Magellanic Penguin S. magellanicus, which has never been positively recorded in Africa.

Distribution and population
Spheniscus demersus breeds at 25 islands and four mainland sites in Namibia and South Africa (Kemper et al. 2007). It has been recorded as far north as Gabon and Mozambique (del Hoyo et al. 1992). Breeding on Neglectus Island, Namibia, was confirmed in 2001, following the absence of confirmed breeding since 1952 at least, and an increase in numbers since 1995 (Roux et al. 2003). In 2003, there were thought to be 11 breeding pairs on the island (Roux et al. 2003). In the 1980s, the species colonised Stony Point and Boulders Beach on the South African mainland, and recolonised Robben Island (Petersen et al. 2006). Immigration to mainland sites in recent years has been attributed to an eastward shift in the species's prey populations (R. Crawford per Koenig 2007, L. Underhill per Koenig 2007). Just seven islands now support 80% of the global population. The most important sites in South Africa are Dasssen island: 13,283 pairs, St Croix Island: 8,077 pairs, Robben Island: 3,697 pairs, Bird Island (Nelson Mandela Bay): 2,822 pairs, Dyer Island: 2,076 pairs and the Boulders: 1,075 pairs (Kemper et al. 2007). In Namibia, Mercury Island held 1,813 pairs in 2006 (Kemper et al. 2007). Its population at the beginning of the 21st century had fallen to about 10% of its numbers 100 years before. The total population was estimated at 141,000 pairs in 1956-1957, 69,000 pairs in 1979-1980, 57,000 pairs in 2004-2005 and 36,000 pairs in 2006-2007 (Kemper et al. 2007). Declines have continued, with the global population in 2009 estimated at just 25,262 pairs (R. Crawford in litt. 2010, J. Kemper in litt. 2010), equating to a decline of 60.5% over 28 years (three generations).

Population justification
The Namibian population was estimated at c.5,000 breeding pairs in 2008, and the South African population at c.21,000 breeding pairs in 2009 (R. Crawford in litt. 2010), thus, the figure used here is 52,000 mature individuals, roughly equating to 75,000-80,000 individuals in total.

Trend justification
The population in Namibia has declined from 12,162 pairs in 1978 to an estimated 4,563 pairs in 2008. Furthermore, the South African population has declined from an estimated 56,900 pairs in 1979 to 20,699 pairs in 2009. These figures correspond to an estimated decline of 61% in the past 28 years (three generations), hence the population decline is placed in the band 50-79%.

Behaviour The adults of this species are largely sedentary but some movements occur in response to prey movements (Hockey et al. 2005). They generally remain within 400 km of their breeding locality, although they have been recorded up to 900 km away (Hockey et al. 2005). They breed and moult on land before taking to the sea where they remain for four months before returning to land for the next breeding season (del Hoyo et al. 1992). Small crèches of up to five juveniles may form at the breeding site (del Hoyo et al. 1992). On gaining independence, juveniles disperse up to 1,900 km from their natal colonies (Hockey et al. 2005), with those from the east heading west, and those from the west and south moving north (del Hoyo et al. 1992). Most birds later return to their natal colony to moult and breed (del Hoyo et al. 1992), although the growth of some island colonies has been attributed to the immigration of first-time breeders tracking food availability (Crawford 1998, Hockey et al. 2005). Adults nest colonially and at sea forages singly, in pairs, or sometimes co-operatively in small groups if up to 150 individuals (del Hoyo et al. 1992, Hockey 2001, Hockey et al. 2005). It breeds year round with peak months varying locally (del Hoyo et al. 1992). In the north-west part of the range, peak laying occurs during the months of November to January, in the south-west it occurs between May and July and in the East Colonial between April and June (del Hoyo et al. 1992). Habitat This species is marine, and is usually found in seas within 40 km of the shore, coming ashore on inshore islands or isolated areas of the mainland coast to breed, moult and rest (del Hoyo et al. 1992, Hockey et al. 2005). Breeding Breeding habitats range from flat, sandy islands with sparse or abundant vegetation, to steep rocky islands with practically no vegetation, although the former is preferred (Hockey et al. 2005). It is sometimes found close to the summit of islands and may move over a kilometre inland in search of breeding sites (Hockey 2001). Non-breeding At sea its distribution is restricted to the area influenced by the Benguela Current (Williams 1995). It usually feeds within 12 km of the coastline (Kemper et al. 2007). Diet Adults feed on pelagic schooling fish of 50-120mm in length (del Hoyo et al. 1992). Important prey includes sardines (Sardinops sagax), anchovies (Engraulis capensis), pelagic goby Sufflogobius bibarbatus, and herring (Etrumeus teres) (Crawford et al. 1985, del Hoyo et al. 1992). In some localities cephalopods also represent an important food source (Crawford et al. 1985). Juveniles tend to prey on fish larvae (Hockey 2001). Breeding site The nest is often built in burrows that are dug in guano or sand (Shelton et al. 1984, Hanes 2006 Nests may also occur in depressions under large boulders or bushes (Hockey 2001). Nesting in open areas has become increasingly common owing to the past harvesting of guano (Hanes 2006 At some sites artificial nest-burrows made from pipes and boxes sunken into the ground have been regularly used by the species (Crawford et al. 1994). The average age at first breeding is thought to be 4-6 years (Whittington et al. 2005).

Population declines are largely attributed to food shortages, resulting from large catches of fish by commercial purse-seine fisheries, and environmental fluctuations. A decrease in foraging effort at the St Croix Island colony following the establishment of a 20 km no-take zone provides some support for this theory (Pichegru et al. 2010). An eastward shift in sardine and anchovy populations is also blamed, with the biomass of these species near the largest breeding islands west of Cape Town falling sharply since 2002 (R. Crawford per Koenig 2007). The abundance of these prey species is known to influence breeding success, which may often be too low to maintain population equilibrium (Crawford et al. 2006). Human disturbance and egg-collecting appear to have been additional factors in the species's declines (Ellis et al. 1998). Tourists may cause nest-burrows to collapse, and their presence in large numbers may deter young birds from breeding. Mortality from oil spills is serious and may increase if proposed development of harbours close to colonies proceeds. In addition, most of the population is confined to just two areas, both near to major shipping ports (Nel and Whittington 2003). There has been a dramatic increase in the number of birds oiled since 1990: two individual oil spills (in 1994 and 2000) have killed 30,000 individuals, despite successful rehabilitation programmes (Nel and Whittington 2003). In addition, breeding success on Robben island fell to 0.23 chicks per pair in 2000, compared with an average of 0.62 ±0.19 over the other 15 years from 1989 to 2004 (Crawford et al. 2006). Without continuing rehabilitation, the population is set to decrease 17-51% over the next 20 years (Nel and Whittington 2003). However, rehabilitation does not necessarily prevent problems in the years after a spill. During 2001-2005, pairs involving at least one bird rehabilitated from the oil spill in 2000 achieved lower fledging success (43%), mostly owing to higher mortality in older chicks, compared to unaffected pairs (61%) and those involving at least one bird affected by a previous oil spill (71%) (Barham et al. 2007). This may indicate physiological or behavioural problems that reduce the parents' ability to meet the food requirements of older chicks, perhaps owing to the toxicity of the heavy oil in the 2000 spill, or the effects of prolonged captivity and time between oiling and washing (Barham et al. 2007). Guano collection has historically been 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 heat stress resulting in the abandonment of nests, flooding of nests by rain and increased predation (Hockey et al. 2005). The cape fur seal Arctocephalus pusillus competes with penguins for food, displaces them from breeding sites and is a periodic predator. Limited mortality in fishing nets may increase if gill-nets are set near colonies (Ellis et al. 1998). Recently the potentially major effects of individual storms on breeding colonies at certain sites has been highlighted (de Villiers 2002). Sharks take birds at sea and Kelp Gulls Larus dominicanus and feral cats prey on eggs and chicks at colonies (Crawford 1998).

Conservation Actions Underway
CITES Appendix II. CMS Appendix II. In South Africa, all breeding localities are national parks, nature reserves or otherwise protected. Collection of guano and eggs is prohibited within penguin colonies (Harrison et al. 1997). Oiled birds are rehabilitated with great success (Nel and Whittington 2003). More than 80% of birds admitted for rehabilitation are returned successfully to the wild (Nel and Whittington 2003). In one study it was found that the age at first breeding of five oiled and rehabilitated birds did not differ significantly from populations on Robben and Dassen Islands (Whittington et al. 2005). Since 1995 there has been a captive breeding programme at an aquarium in Cape Town, where around six birds are bred annually, and a total of 14 have been released nearby (Lahana 2003). This programme has contributed to public awareness and education (Lahana 2003). Research into feeding behaviour involving the use of satellite-tracking and transponders is ongoing (Koenig 2007). On Dyer Island, the effects of guano collection in the past are being mitigated by the installation of small fiberglass igloos as nest-sites, with 200 put in place by 2006 and an eventual target of 2,000, roughly one for every pair in the colony (Hanes 2006). These artificial nest-sites are used by pairs very soon after installation, and if the programme is successful it will be expanded to other colonies in South Africa (Hanes 2006 A research project into the potential positive impacts of small marine no-take zones surrounding breeding colonies is underway, with results in the first year showing a decrease in adult foraging effort (Pichegru et al. 2010, L. Pichegru in litt. 2010). Conservation Actions Proposed
Monitor population trends at all colonies (Ellis et al. 1998). Continue and maintain the SANCCOB oil spill rehabilitation centre. Initiate research into the impacts of fishing and predation (Ellis et al. 1998). Protect Namibian breeding localities (Ellis et al. 1998). Develop plans to conserve pelagic fish resources (Harrison et al. 1997), namely through management of the purse-seine fishery (Crawford et al. 2006). Prevent oilspills from illegal cleaning of ship tanks (Harrison et al. 1997). Eliminate feral cats from Bird, Dassen and Robben Islands and implement measures to preclude the introduction of rats to any colonies (Ellis et al. 1998, Crawford et al. 2006). Investigate reintroduction techniques (Ellis et al. 1998) and establish captive breeding populations to assist with future reintroduction or supplementation efforts. Assess whether climate change is a factor in the shifting of prey populations (Koenig 2007). Consider the idea of establishing no-fishing zones around breeding islands (Koenig 2007, L. Underhill per Koenig 2007). Consider translocating birds in reaction to shifts in food availability (L. Underhill per Koenig 2007). Maintain suitable breeding habitat (Crawford et al. 2006). Control the spread of disease (Crawford et al. 2006). Establish and then monitor 'trial colonies' close to current concentrations of food resources (R. Wanless in litt. 2010).

Related state of the world's birds case studies

Barham, P. J. ; Underhill, L. G.; Crawford, R. J. M.; Leshoro, T. M. 2007. Differences in breeding success between African Penguins (Spheniscus demersus) that were and were not oiled in the MV Treasure oil-spill in 2000. Emu 107: 7-13.

Barnes, K. N. 2000. The Eskom Red Data Book of birds of South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland. BirdLife South Africa, Johannesburg.

Collar, N. J.; Butchart, S. H. M. 2013. Conservation breeding and avian diversity: chances and challenges. International Zoo Yearbook.

Crawford, R. 1998. Revised Red Data Book. Bird Numbers 7(2): 8-9.

Crawford, R.J.M., Dyer, B.M. and Brooke, R.K. 1994. Breeding nomadism in southern African seabirds: constraints, causes and conservation. Ostrich 65(2): 231-246.

Crawford, R.J.M.; Barham, P.J.; Underhill, L. G.; Shannon, L.J.; Coetzee, J.C.; Dyer, B.M.; Leshoro, T.M.; Upfold, L. 2006. The influence of food availability on breeding success of African Penguins Spheniscus demersus at Robben Island, South Africa. Biological Conservation 132(1): 119-125.

de Villiers, M. 2002. Effect of a storm on breeding African Penguins Spheniscus demersus at Foxy Beach, Boulders Penguin Colony, Simon's Town. Bird Numbers 11: 7-9.

del Hoyo, J.; Elliot, A.; Sargatal, J. 1992. Handbook of the Birds of the World, vol. 1: Ostrich to Ducks. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona, Spain.

Ellis, S.; Croxall, J. P.; Cooper, J. 1998. Penguin conservation assessment and management plan: report from the workshop held 8-9 September 1996, Cape Town, South Africa. IUCN/SSC, Apple Valley, USA.

Hanes, S. 2006. Penguins get a helping home from fiberglass 'igloos'. Available at:

Harrison, J. A.; Allan, D. G.; Underhill, L. G.; Herremans, M.; Tree, A. J.; Parker, V.; Brown, C. J. 1997. The atlas of southern African birds. BirdLife South Africa, Johannesburg.

Hockey, P. 2001. Struik Winchester, Cape Town, South Africa.

Hockey, P. A. R.; Dean, W. R. J.; Ryan, P. G. 2005. Roberts birds of southern Africa. Trustees of the John Voelcker Bird Book Fund, Cape Town, South Africa.

Kemper, J.; Underhill, L. G.; Crawford, R. J. M.; Kirkman, S. P. 2007. Revision of the conservation status of seabirds and seals breeding in the Benguela Ecosystem. In: Kirkman, S. P. (ed.), Final Report of the BCLME (Benguela Current Large Marine Ecosystem), pp. 325-342.

Koenig, R. 2007. African Penguin populations reported in a puzzling decline. Science 315(5816): 120.

Nel, D. C.; Whittington, P. A. 2003. Rehabilitation of oiled African Penguins: a conservation success story.

Petersen, S. L.; Ryan, P. G.; Gremillet, D. 2006. Is food availability limiting African Penguins Spheniscus demersus at Boulders? A comparison of foraging effort at mainland and island colonies. Ibis 148: 14-26.

Pichegru, L.; Grémillet, D.; Crawford, R. M. J.; Ryan, P. G. 2010. Marine no-take zone rapidly benefits Endangered penguin. Biology Letters

Roux, J.-P.; Kemper, J.; Bartlett, P. A.; Dyer, B. M.; Dundee, B. L. 2003. African penguins Spheniscus demersus recolonise a fomerly abandoned nesting locality in Namibia. Marine Ornithology 31: 203-205.

Shelton, P.A., Crawford, R.J.M., Cooper, J., Brooke, R.K. 1984. Distribution, population size and conservation of the Jackass Penguin Spheniscus demersus. South African Journal of Marine Science 2: 217-257.

Whittington, P., Klages, N., Crawford, R., Wolfaardt, A. and Kemper, J. 2005. Age at first breeding of the African Penguin. Ostrich 76(1&2): 14-20.

Williams, T. D. 1995. The penguins Spheniscidae. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Text account compilers
Calvert, R., Ekstrom, J., Pilgrim, J., Shutes, S., Taylor, J., Allinson, T & Symes, A.

Crawford, R., Kemper, J., Pichegru, L., Simmons, R., Underhill, L. & Wanless, R.

Recommended citation
BirdLife International (2014) Species factsheet: Spheniscus demersus. Downloaded from on 17/04/2014. Recommended citation for factsheets for more than one species: BirdLife International (2014) IUCN Red List for birds. Downloaded from on 17/04/2014.

This information is based upon, and updates, the information published in BirdLife International (2000) Threatened birds of the world. Barcelona and Cambridge, UK: Lynx Edicions and BirdLife International, BirdLife International (2004) Threatened birds of the world 2004 CD-ROM and BirdLife International (2008) Threatened birds of the world 2008 CD-ROM. These sources provide the information for species accounts for the birds on the IUCN Red List.

To provide new information to update this factsheet or to correct any errors, please email BirdLife

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Additional resources for this species

ARKive species - African penguin (Spheniscus demersus) 0

Key facts
Current IUCN Red List category Endangered
Family Spheniscidae (Penguins)
Species name author (Linnaeus, 1758)
Population size 52000 mature individuals
Population trend Decreasing
Distribution size (breeding/resident) 9,400 km2
Country endemic? No
Links to further information
- Additional Information on this species
- Climate change species distributions