Posted By CLARE NULLIS, THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
Nesting in the sparkling sand, preening on the rocks and darting through the waters, the penguins on the southern tip of Africa are the ultimate crowd-pleaser. But crisis looms.
Short of food, exposed to predators and the African sun, their numbers are plummeting. But salvation may rest in a simple man-made solution -- housing for penguins.
Dotting the shore of this penguin colony near the Cape of Good Hope are 200 nesting boxes, each big enough to house a happy family of parents, eggs and chicks.
The experiment has already worked well on a more distant penguin island in South African waters, and wildlife rangers are eagerly watching to see whether the boxes recently installed on Boulders Beach will prove equally attractive.
"You look at the penguins and think they have a lovely time in sunny South Africa, but it's a struggle," says Monique Ruthenberg, a ranger with the Table Mountain National Park in Cape Town, where summer temperatures recently hit 40 C.
Park authorities installed the boxes -- made of a fiberglass mix, shaped like a burrow and dug into the sand to mimic the real nests -- at Boulders Beach as part of desperate efforts to protect the dwindling populations of African penguins.
It has been a losing struggle. Numbers of the cute creatures have plummeted from around three million in the 1930s to just 120,000 because of overfishing and pollution.
Some experts fear the species will die out in a decade, and are particularly alarmed at the prospect of global warming increasing the number of scorching days, raising water temperatures and altering fish migration patterns.
The Boulders Beach colony has fallen 30% from a peak of 3,900 birds in 2005 to 2,600 and some of the island colonies have suffered calamitous declines of 50%.
The African penguin is the only one to inhabit the African continent. It has shorter feathers than the Antarctic birds because it doesn't face such cold and is just 50 cm tall.
About 600,000 tourists a year visit Boulders Beach, which boasts that it is the only place in the world where people can swim with penguins.
The real lifeHappy Feetare unfazed by the attention and, apart from a few who were killed while snoozing under cars, don't seem to have suffered from their contact with humans.
There is a constant risk from pollution. The last big oil spill was in 2000, when 20,000 penguins were trucked about 750 km from Cape Town to Port Elizabeth to allow workers time to clean up.
But even in years with no big accidents, the South African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds has to rescue and rehabilitate hundreds of birds whose feathers are covered in oil illegally dumped at sea.
The population fall continues, especially on the more remote Dyer Island where numbers have plummeted from 23,000 breeding pairs in the early 1970s to just 1,500 pairs. Penguins normally mate for life.
"It's horrible," Wilfred Chivell, chairman of the Dyer Island Conservation Trust, who blames bad fishing management for a dwindling supply of sardines and pilchards, the penguins' main food.
Such is the competition for fish that Ruthenberg says young seals attack penguins to rip the fish from their bellies.
Gulls prey on the eggs and young chicks, often working as a team; the nesting penguins leave their eggs to chase away the invaders, while another gull sneaks in behind, she says.
Eggs lie abandoned in the sand because the parents have taken to the water to escape the heat. Once a nesting pair abandons its eggs, other penguins often follow suit.
So volunteers calling themselves the iKapa Honorary Rangers asked the public to sponsor nesting boxes for $20 each. They initially planned 100 boxes but this was doubled thanks to a $2,000 (U. S.) donation from the Species Survival Plan-- a co-operation program linking members of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums in the U. S.
The nesting boxes are meant to give the penguins an edge -- shelter from the heat and a better defence against egg-stealing gulls -- and the 1,000 boxes on the more remote Dyer Island have proven popular, with 80% occupancy.
Story courtesy of the Tribune @