10/12/2014

Thousands of penguin chicks rescued and reintroduced to the wild to save a species

African penguins are now an endangered species and it remains critical to save every individual possible to bolster numbers in the wild.

There are less than 19,000 penguin mating pairs left in the wild in South Africa. The global population of African penguins fell a devastating 70% between 2001 and 2013. Numerous penguin chicks are abandoned around this time of year, just before their parents start their moulting cycle, when they develop a new set of waterproof feathers. Adult African penguins still need to make foraging trips during this time and leave their chicks behind. Due to an increasing decline in fish stocks, penguins have to journey further afield for their food but are unable to swim before their moulting cycle. Thus meaning they cannot feed their chicks, which are not yet ready to fledge due to lack of food availability, resulting in abandonment and starvation.

There are less than 19,000 penguin mating pairs left in the wild in South Africa. The global population of African penguins fell a devastating 70% between 2001 and 2013.

Numerous penguin chicks are abandoned around this time of year, just before their parents start their moulting cycle, when they develop a new set of waterproof feathers. Adult African penguins still need to make foraging trips during this time and leave their chicks behind. Due to an increasing decline in fish stocks, penguins have to journey further afield for their food but are unable to swim before their moulting cycle. Thus meaning they cannot feed their chicks, which are not yet ready to fledge due to lack of food availability, resulting in abandonment and starvation. 

African penguins are now an endangered species and it remains critical to save every individual possible to bolster numbers in the wild.

Since 2006, Bristol Zoological Society has been working with Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB) to hand-rear abandoned chicks and offer rehabilitation to chicks that have been oiled. Between 2006 and 2013, 2988 chicks have been rescued by SANCCOB to be hand-reared and of these 77% have been released into the wild.

Following a recent study conducted by University of Cape Town, Bristol Zoological Society, SANCCOB and Cape Nature, 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.

Venessa Strauss, Conservation Director at SANCCOB said: "Research has proven that hand-reared chicks fare as well as naturally-reared chicks in the wild. As a result, hand-rearing of abandoned chicks is proven to be a successful conservation intervention to help bolster the wild population.”

Approximately 500 wild African penguin chicks were taken into temporary human care in November and December 2013, once they had been identified as under-weight and unwell due to abandonment by their moulting parents. The rescued chicks were then admitted to SANCCOB for hand-rearing.

Rehabilitation of these chicks can take between six weeks and three months depending on their size and condition. Once they are at fledging age, have reached an adequate weight, are in a healthy condition and their feathers are waterproof, they are released back into the wild.

Dr Grainne McCabe, Head of Conservation Science at the Bristol Zoological Society, said: “It is a huge effort to conserve an endangered species such as the African penguin, and every chick is vitally important. Unless conservation organisations intervene, these chicks will starve to death. As African penguin populations are currently facing a crisis due to a diminished food supply near their nesting colonies, there is a substantial risk that this species could eventually become extinct without action.”

The Chick Bolstering Project is a collaboration between the Bristol Zoological Society, SANCCOB, The Animal Demography Unit of the University of Cape Town, the South African government (Department of Environmental Affairs), Cape Nature, Robben Island Museum and South African National Parks.  

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