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Saving African Penguins

Saving African Penguins

For endangered African penguins, every bird counts…

Bird Island (11)The rubber duck is gliding over the Atlantic, hurrying away from the Port of Ngqura, 20 kilometres north east of Port Elizabeth. The world class port receives bulk industrial shipments; handling containers on transit to markets the globe over. This delivery, however, is a small one, packaged in two brown, cardboard boxes and destined for delivery a mere 32 sea miles from the harbour.

Yet, the goods are integral. Referred to as 103, 092, 081, 091 and 100, the package contains items more important than many of the huge shipping containers at the harbour. Snuggly huddled inside are some of the remaining group of a population of seabirds dangerously close to falling over the edge of extinction – the endangered African penguin. These five have seen much turmoil and adventure in their short lives. Thanks to SANParks and Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB), it’s not over.

They would have been born somewhere on the southern African coastline, on one of the rocky islands or isolated rocky shores from Namibia to South Africa. They are endemic to this part of the world, and do not migrate far, mostly only as far as available food sources call for. Once, they were some of South Africa’s most abundant seabirds, with a population as much as one million breeding pairs strong during the early 20th century. Today the total estimate is less than 25 000 breeding pairs. According to the Department of Environmental Affairs: Oceans and Coasts, only 19 284 breeding pairs were recorded in South Africa in 2015. So in reality, about 2% is left of the population 80 years ago and, the decrease is continuing.

Subsequently, the excitement about 103, 092, 081, 091 and 100 was tangible. The destination: Bird Island, located in Addo’s Marine Protected Area, and home to the largest breeding colony of Cape gannets in the world, as well as birds such as African penguins and rare roseate terns.

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They’ve all ended up together in the brown cardboard boxes, rushing forward on the SANParks marine ranger boat for different reasons, though all of them are recent patients of the SANCCOB Eastern Cape rehabilitation centre. The first to arrive was 081. He was discovered at the St Francis Lighthouse with a deep wound on its rump, possibly caused by predators, says Juanita Raath, SANCCOB Eastern Cape rehabilitation coordinator. He was admitted in June. At the end of July 2015, 091 arrived. Only a toddler (called a ‘blue’) it was found on a beach in Cape St Francis weak with pneumonia. The last three all arrived in August 2015. According to Raath, 100 was found on St Francis beach, and arrived very skinny, weak and dehydrated. Also weak, 103 (a blue) was transferred from Tenikwa. Lastly, 092 was brought in by a fisherman, who found him at Port St Francis with deep laceration around its flipper caused by fishing line.

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At SANCCOB, each one received a specific feeding, swimming, medication and treatment schedule. Veterinary staff tested and graded them weekly on their health, blood results, weight and the waterproofing on their feathers. Prior to release, each also received an implanted transponder for research and monitoring purposes .

“These birds spent between one and three months at the facility. This period depends on the severity of their injury or condition,” says Raath.

Between 250 and 350 African penguins and other sea birds are admitted to their Cape St Francis facilities annually, and between 50 and 450 birds come from Bird and St Croix every year. More than 2000 are submitted to the Cape Town facilities at Table View.

“This number is greatly affected by the occurrence of an oil spill as well as the availability of food,” she says.

According to Raath, it would be hard to establish a trend during the two and a half years that SANCCOB Eastern Cape has been working with SANParks, as there has been a major oil spill and great variation in admission numbers.

Still, the five African penguins in the boast were now part of the over 95 000 oiled, ill, injured or abandoned seabirds treated by SANCCOB since their establishment in 1968.

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As the manager of Bird Island, SANParks assisted with their release back into the wild. Even before the island was in sight, hints of their destination could be spotted in the ocean. Cape gannets skirted the ocean, cormorant heads dipped in and out of the water and clusters of African penguins bobbed curiously in the waves.

At the island, the boxes were gently tipped for the penguins to waddle out and join the colony. They happily shuffled to their kin, their heads quickly disappearing in the small group of black and white birds heading for the ocean. Hopefully, they faced a long and prosperous future. For the remaining population of African penguins, every bird counts.

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Want to help conserve African penguins?

  • Visit www.sanccob.co.za to adopt and name an African penguin; donate to SANCCOB Cape St Francis; visit their online or onsite shop for penguin goodies and special behind-the-scenes tours; raise funds for SANCCOB by swiping your MySchool MyVillage MyPlanet card.
  • Report injured penguins and/or oiled birds to SANCCOB by calling +42 298 0160 (normal work hours) or 082 890 0207 (after hours and weekends)
  • Volunteer at SANCCOB by emailing [email protected]

Words: Petro Kotzé 

Pictures: Supplied

Content courtesy of SANParks Times: www.sanparkstimes.co.za

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