Cape Town - The population of the iconic African penguin has crashed to such an extent that the Cape seabird has become endangered.
Now, the annual chick season, abandoned or orphaned youngsters are being rescued and rehabilitated by conservation authorities in a bid to make each one count.
So far 89 penguin chicks have already been admitted to rehabilitation centres run by Sanccob (Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds) at Table View and Cape St Francis, with conservationists regularly searching for more.
Ornithologists estimate that at the turn of the 19th century, there were as many as one million breeding pairs of this seabird at just one of the breeding colonies: Dassen Island off Yzerfontein on the West Coast.
Last year, there were just 3 900 breeding pairs on Dassen Island. The population of this bird, that occurs only on the South African and Namibian coasts, is crashing at the alarming rate of 20 percent a year.
According to conservation group BirdLife SA, the South African population of these birds is about 19 000 pairs, while Namibia has only about 5 000 pairs left.
This is why Sanccob takes in some 300 to 400 abandoned chicks from colonies at Stony Point (Betty’s Bay), Boulders Beach, Robben Island and Bird Island in Algoa Bay near East London. Few chicks are taken from Dassen Island during this time as it has a different breeding cycle.
Historically, numerous penguin chicks are abandoned at the end of the breeding season just before their parents start their annual moulting cycle when they are unable to hunt for fish to feed their young, said Sanccob. “As a result, the chicks face starvation unless conservation managers intervene.”
So Sanccob works with SA National Parks, the Overstrand municipality and CapeNature to find and catch all underweight and ill chicks.
Last week nine chicks were removed from Robben Island. Sanccob researcher Dr Nola Parsons said: “Very few chicks are left in the Robben Island colony as it’s the end of the breeding season. We measured the head size and weight of 21 chicks, nine of which were under the required measurements and therefore brought to Sanccob for rehabilitation.”
Once at the centres, these “Christmas chicks”, as they are fondly named, are allowed to swim, are fed “fish smoothies” and are taken care of round the clock to ensure that they get released back into the wild.
Nicky Stander, Sanccob’s rehabilitation manager at Table View, said: “The condition of the birds admitted so far is stable and they are responding positively. However, given the recent unseasonal storm, various colonies were hit hard with chicks succumbing to hypothermia…”
l If you’d like to help, visit www.sanccob.co.za and click on “Adopt a Christmas chick”. For R500 you get to name “your” chick and you’ll cover the cost of its rehabilitation and release back into the wild. You will also receive a brief history of the chick, a photo and a certificate of adoption. This is valid only until December 15.
A fight for survival
The African Penguin is more threatened than the White Rhino, with a population only about 14 percent of the 1950s level when the first official census was conducted. In 2010, the bird’s status was changed from “vulnerable” to “endangered” by BirdLife International.
Today, the birds are threatened by seals, sharks, oil spills, and a lack of food.
“By far the biggest concern is, quite simply, a lack of food. Penguins eat mainly sardines and anchovies, which are also the target of the commercial purse-seine fishing industry. However, the role fishing has played in the decrease is hotly debated,” says BirdLife SA.
Attempts to decrease mortality include eradicating invasive predators, reducing predation by natural predators (such as seals) around colonies, rehabilitation and disease control.
But none of these efforts has halted the decrease in the population yet.
On the protective trail
One way to help stop the decrease in African penguin numbers would be know where they go after breeding or moulting, says BirdLife SA.
“We cannot help protect them if we’ve no idea where they are and what threats they’re facing.”
One way of tracking penguins is by fitting them with tiny GPS tracking devices. Weighing just 100g, these trackers are expensive at R30 000 each, and cost R2 000 a month in satellite connection time.
“By knowing if they stay close to their breeding islands after breeding or moulting, or travel away from them, we can see if they are likely to come into competition for food with the sardine and anchovy fisheries, and whether implementing special management areas will help,” says BirdLife SA. - Cape Argus
To follow the tracks of these tagged penguins, go to http://www.birdlife.org.za/conservation/seabirds/tracking-penguins