Penguin Conservation in South Africa

The African penguin is endangered. The shift from Vulnerable to Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species was announced by Birdlife International in May 2010. Not only are they endangered but their population is in rapid decline, with no sign of reversing.

Did you know? The African penguin is also known as the black-footed penguin and less frequently the Jackass penguin.

The number of African penguins breeding in South Africa plummeted from around 56 000 pairs in 2001 to only 19 000 pairs in 2012 (a loss of 37 000 pairs in just eleven years). Include the Namibian penguins in the tally, and that's a mere 24 000 pairs of African penguins left in the world.

The world population has dropped by 80% since the 1950s. And just in the last decade 60% of those counted in the 1950s have gone. It's anticipated that unless we halt the decline, the African penguin will no longer be around 15 years from now.

Why are they endangered?

The reason, experts say, is probably lack of food caused by a shift in the distribution of fish, local competition with fisheries, and an increase in Cape fur seal populations. But these are ideas. No-one is certain what the real reason for the continuously declining numbers of penguins is.

Human interference historically includes the harvesting of eggs (prevalent between the 1920s and the 1960s), and the removal of guano from their nesting sites for fertilizer, which stripped a hard layer away from the nests these birds had burrowed to remain safe from predators and the sun.

In more recent times oil spills (see 25 facts about penguins you might not know) and commercial fishing have contributed to their decline in no small way, this despite the re-appearance of breeding pairs of penguins on Neglectus Island in Namibia in 2001, after an absence of almost 50 years.

And there are other factors too...

When it gets hot, heat stressed penguins abandon their eggs and young to cool off in the sea. As a result, a lot of eggs and chicks are lost. Heavy rains are an added threat, washing away nests and drowning young chicks, whilst older chicks can die from exposure to cold and wet.

Various organisations, such as SANCCOB, BirdLife South Africa and IFAW, run projects and programmes to protect, rescue, release and rehabilitate the African penguin. All the breeding sites along our coastline are protected.

Contact with the African penguin is kept to a minimum, except for the mainland colonies, who are more tame and used to interaction with humans.

In the last couple of years there has been a collaborative effort to stop the decline of the African penguin. A biodiversity plan drawn up by a group of scientists, NGOs, the fishing industry and government - after a planning workshop held in Arniston in October 2010 - hopes to increase their growth rate by 1 percent per year.

Some of the measures include...

  1. fishing exclusion zones around African penguin breeding islands; protecting the penguins at Burghers Walk (east of Boulders);
  2. stopping the international trade in wild-caught penguins;
  3. a capture, raise and release programme for chicks who might not survive without intervention;
  4. and enforcement of the Southern SA Special Waters Area to prevent pollution by ships.

Some of the work done by organisations since then, includes this a field study on Robben Island by EarthWatch and work done by Birdlife South Africa on African Penguin Conservation.

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