Like all penguins, African penguins are iconic, charismatic and enormously popular. They generate economic activities for local communities through tourism and are key components of marine ecosystems. Concerted conservation effort is needed to avoid the extinction of this critical marine predator.
The African penguin (Spheniscus demersus), is the only penguin species found in Africa. They can survive in temperate climates by benefitting from oceanic upwellings which bring cold, nutrient-rich ocean water to the surface, supporting an abundant food chain. Between 2001 and 2013 alone, the global population of African penguins by fell a devastating 70%, leaving less than 18,000 breeding pairs in the wild. As such, this species is now classified as Endangered and faces a significant risk of becoming extinct if no action is taken to reverse their decline. One of the dominant reasons behind this is a decline and distribution change of their main prey items, achovies and sardines, caused by overfishing and climate change. In South Africa, these species spawn further east than two decades ago, out of reach of penguins in the Western Cape much of the time. However, because fishing vessels mainly operate from west coast ports and, like birds, are limited in how far they can go to find fish, the result has been heavy fishing pressure where the fish have already become scarce.
Since 2006, BZS have been a key partner of SANCCOB (Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds), in setting up the Chick Bolstering Project (CBP). This project was needed as many penguin pairs were failing in their first breeding attempts of the season due to low fish stocks, resulting in secondary clutches later in the breeding season. When egg laying and hatching is delayed in this way, chicks are not yet old enough to fledge and feed themselves before their parents start the moult process, where they lose their waterproof feathers. Without the ability to swim to find food to feed their chicks, the chicks can starve. In 2016 alone, the Chick Bolstering Project rescued 980 chicks. After extensive rehabilitation, to date the project has successfully released 83% of the chicks back into established colonies. In the next 5 years, there is far more scope for BZS to have a powerful conservation impact, particularly with new research initiatives and collaborations, which will help to ensure the survival of this Endangered species.
photo: Francois Louw
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