African penguins numbers have dropped drastically over the years. This is not only due to guano harvesting for the fertiliser industry that prevented penguins from digging natural burrows to nest in, but also due to penguin eggs that were devoured by humans by the millions without consideration for the long-term consequences.
Words by René de Klerk. Images by Kevin Graham. Originally published in SANParks Times.
Today, penguin numbers have still not recovered and new factors such as oil spills only worsen the problem. As the decline occurred directly because of human influence, conservationists have worked together in order to look for solutions to correct the situation. Now, artificial nests may offer some hope.
A number of islands and breeding colonies along the South African coastline are part of a new large-scale project to save these penguins. In December, Addo Elephant National Park’s Bird Island received a special delivery. The delivery consisted of 100 nests of which 12 were initially set up for use by penguins.
“This coincides with breeding season that takes place from January to March,” says Rob Milne, marine senior section ranger at Addo. By the end of January, eight of the first twelve erected nests were already occupied by breeding pairs. More nests were scheduled to be set up in February.
The project follows a failed experiment 10 years ago, when the first artificial nests set up at the time did not serve their purpose. Made from fibre glass, they kept predators at bay, but the heat caused penguins to leave their eggs and chicks behind.
Today the Dyer Island Conservation Trust (DICT) is the project leader for the Penguin Penthouse project. The first nests were tested in January 2017. Trudi Malan, project manager for the DICT African penguin programmes says the nests had to be environmentally friendly, have the same climate as natural guano nests, and accommodate an adult and two chicks, amongst other requirements.
The homes are made from ceramic-based slurry applied over a geotextile fabric, and are non-toxic and environmentally friendly. Ventilation holes ensure the nests maintain the correct temperature. Malan says field rangers and scientists will continue to measure the temperature and humidity and monitor the breeding success of penguins.
“The population on Bird Island is stable, but the African penguin is endangered. On the West Coast, numbers are rapidly decreasing due to food shortages,” says Milne. There were only 174 breeding pairs recorded in 2016 at this spot. The 2016 census showed just under 3000 pairs on Bird Island.
The project is collaboration between the American Zoo Association, DICT, the Pan-African Association of Zoos and Aquaria, SANParks, CapeNature, the Department of Environmental Affairs and the Habitat Working Group of the African Penguin Biodiversity Management Plan, amongst others.