By ABBIE KRAUSE
Published: May 3, 2015
Once upon a time, there was an African black-footed penguin named Tess that lived at the Pueblo Zoo.
Many Puebloans knew that Tess was a very special penguin, for at the time of her death, she was 40 years (and 8 months) old, making her the oldest known living African black-footed penguin in captivity and the oldest female on record. In the wild, the average life expectancy of African penguins is 15-20 years.
Tess was very well adjusted to her surroundings and colony and received excellent care, which may have contributed to her exceptionally long life. Perhaps more importantly, Tess and the zoo’s entire penguin colony are great ambassadors for their species, giving guests a chance to connect with these amazing birds and learn more about their wild counterparts.
However, the future of the African black-footed penguin population is not looking like a fairy tale with a happy ending. Native to waters along the southern African coastline, the penguins are classified as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and is threatened by a number of factors, including overfishing of food sources, shifts in the fish-rich currents they rely on, habitat destruction and commercial oil spills and dumping.
Many of the penguins’ food sources, such as anchovies, are severely depleted through overfishing, shifting travel patterns or oil spills. The distance they need to swim to find fish, as well as severe competition and threat from predators such as Cape fur seals and sharks, present great challenges to the penguins’ feeding and breeding. The population has also been undermined by people hunting penguin eggs and collecting guano — needed for nest sites — for use as fertilizer. An oil spill in 2000 threatened 40 percent of the wild population.
During the last decade, the African penguin population has declined by nearly 60 percent; the current estimated population is a mere 10 percent of what it was 100 years ago. With this sharp decline, the penguins are expected to be extinct in the wild within 20 years.
One glimmer of hope is that Association of Zoos and Aquarium institutions, like the Pueblo Zoo, have helped to create a broad genetic base for the penguins in captivity, with the capacity to maintain genetic diversity for the next 100 years. So, reintroduction in the wild may be a possibility at some point in the future, if needed.
This month, the zoo is set to launch its Quarters for Conservation program to raise awareness about the importance of conservation efforts in the wild and encourage the public to join in to make a difference. The zoo plans to honor Tess through supporting the conservation efforts of the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB).
Visitors can learn more at two zoo events: Endangered Species Day on May 15 and Penguin Day on May 25.
For more information about Tess’s story and events, go to pueblozoo.org. For more on penguin conservation, go to sanccob.co.za.