Dr Schwitzer, director of conservation at Bristol Zoo, said: "In 2010 they were uplisted to endangered and are now on their way to being uplisted to the highest level which is critically endangered." This drastic decline has been especially acute in the last decade which has seen the global population of African penguins dive 70 per cent.
While I am told the famed 'Monty' from the John Lewis advert is an Adélie Antarctic penguin, the reasons Dr Schwitzer cites for the African penguin crisis could as easily affect that breed as well.
Dr Schwitzer continues: "I have never seen a reduction in a species like this in my career and there seems to be one main reason behind it and that's lack of food."
"For adult penguins it's not too bad because they can swim to get food and return but for penguins with children they can only swim a maximum of 20km from their chicks to get food," Dr Schwitzer says. "This results in chicks being abandoned and dying."
So it's just about the penguins re-establishing their colonies where fish are plentiful. Simple. Actually, no.
"When a young penguin becomes adult they go to breed where they came from," Dr Schwitzer says.
"You can't just take a penguin to a new colony because they will just go back to where they came from. Our research at the moment is to find at what point in a penguin's life history they realise their colony of origin and establish a desire to return for breeding. It's then a case of taking penguins bred at a site where they will die unless moved and monitoring them where we place them to see where they return to for breeding to see if we can establish a pattern."
The mission is a huge team effort with the Bristol Zoological Society working with the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB), The Animal Demography Unit of the University of Cape Town, the South African government, Cape Nature, Robben Island Museum and South African National Parks.
Since 2006, Bristol Zoological Society has been working with SANCCOB to hand-rear abandoned chicks and offer rehabilitation to chicks that have been oiled. Between then and 2013, 2,988 chicks have been rescued by SANCCOB to be hand-reared and of these 77 per cent have been released into the wild and monitored.
And so far the 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. Good news.
"Eventually we will know what we will have to do to establish a new colony in a new place – we are closer to that ultimate goal than ever," Dr Schwitzer says. "Even better the South African government has given us permission to take this forward and a five year action plan is in place to halt this decline. A Bristol Zoo project being made a South African government initiative is something, you can imagine, that I am very proud of."
Dr Grainne McCabe, head of Conservation Science at the Bristol Zoological Society, added: "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."