The African penguin (Spheniscus demersus) is the only penguin found in Africa. The global population of African penguins fell a devastating 70% between 2001 and 2013. There are now less than 18,000 mating pairs left in the wild. There is a substantial risk that this species could eventually become extinct without action.
African penguins are classified as endangered with a decreasing population. The species has been hit by a number of human-related activities such as oiling; the single biggest threat to African penguins. Oiled penguins lose the water-proofing on their feathers and swallow the oil as they try to clean themselves. In addition, hundreds of penguin chicks are abandoned by the parents in winter time every year. Adult penguins need to make foraging trips during this time to feed themselves and their chicks. Due to an increasing decline in fish stocks near nesting colonies, African penguins have to journey further afield for their food. However they are unable to swim before their moulting cycle – the period when they develop a new set of waterproof feathers – which takes place in winter time.
Failed foraging trips mean adults cannot feed their chicks, resulting in abandonment and starvation.
Since 2006, Bristol Zoological Society has been working with a local conservation centre to hand-rear abandoned chicks and offer rehabilitation to chicks that have been oiled. Between 2006 and 2014, almost 4,000 chicks have been rescued to be hand-reared and, of these, 77% have already been released back into the wild.
We also undertake observational research on our penguins here in Bristol Zoo Gardens, supplying information that helps to understand penguins’ behaviour in the wild.
Hand-rearing chicks and strategies to increase breeding success are fundamental to bolstering African penguin numbers in the wild. After being identified as under-weight and unwell due to abandonment by their moulting parents, rescued chicks are admitted to our South African partner’s conservation centre for hand-rearing. Rehabilitation of chicks can take between six weeks and three months. Once they have reached fledging age, an adequate weight, a healthy condition and their feathers are waterproof they are released back into the wild.
Following a recent study, research indicates that chicks hand-reared after catastrophic oil spills and abandonment had the same survival and reproductive rates when re-introduced to the wild as those naturally reared by their parents. Conservation efforts are also focused on strategies to increase breeding success, such as providing artificial nests and reducing mortality at breeding colonies, by rehabilitating oiled and injured adults for example.
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