A distinct odor of dead fish, guano, and earthy sea lingers in the air. Loud braying punctuates conversations.
At the South African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB) in Cape Town, the primary occupants are African penguins—as of mid-July, more than 100 of them. Native to the coast of South Africa and Namibia, African penguin numbers have declined precipitously in the last few decades, from 56,000 breeding pairs in 2001 to approximately 20,000 pairs today.
Guano harvesting for fertilizer, egg collection, and overfishing of their prey, among other threats, led to the species being declared endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature in 2010. SANCCOB helps give this plucky bird a boost through the rescue and rehabilitation of sick and injured adult penguins and abandoned penguin chicks.
“It's really a sad and depressing thought to know that the African penguin could potentially become extinct in our lifetime,” says Romy Klusener, the chick rearing unit supervisor at SANCCOB. “These birds are so important to us. We need to make sure that…we are doing absolutely everything in our power…to bolster the wild population.”
Threats to Africa’s only penguins
David Roberts, a veterinarian at SANCCOB, says that African penguins nest on islands off the coast, building small nests from their own excrement, called guano. But in the early 19th and 20th centuries, people harvested the nitrogen-rich guano from the islands for fertilizer. By disturbing their nesting sites, guano harvesting was the first major hit to the African penguin population.
But it’s hard to attribute their decline to just one factor, says Cuan McGeorge, a field ranger at Stony Point in the Kogelberg Biosphere Reserve, where an African penguin colony breeds on the mainland. He says that today, human encroachment and a decrease in the penguins’ preferred fish are the main causes of decline.
Just two feet tall, these petite penguins compete with commercial fishers for the same fish—anchovies and sardines—but the penguins usually lose that battle. Fewer available fish also means that marine predators, such as seals, have started targeting penguins for food instead, McGeorge says.
Furthermore, warming oceans due to climate change have shifted fish spawning locations farther from the colonies, adding an extra challenge for penguins searching for food. And African penguins hunt more efficiently as a group, by herding large schools of fish. A decrease in the number of penguins in an area might mean they can’t catch food as successfully.
To save this charismatic endangered species, the South African government closed fisheries near some penguin colonies to give them a better chance at successfully raising more chicks.
Field rangers like McGeorge also help with predator control. After penguins started nesting on the mainland, including at Stony Point, they faced new predators like mongooses and even leopards. Relocating a predator farther away from the vulnerable colony can reduce the number of predator-related penguin deaths.
Adult penguins make their way to SANCCOB facilities in Cape Town and Port Elizabeth thanks to calls from penguin enthusiasts or field rangers who monitor the colonies. The birds may be suffering from malnourishment or wounds from predators, Roberts says. Depending on the injuries, rehabilitating them requires anything from a few days to up to a year.
African penguins undergo a “catastrophic molt” each year, when they replace all their black and white tuxedo feathers in the same three weeks. Molting adults are land-bound during this time, McGeorge says, which means they can’t go to sea to fish for their chicks. Often these molting parents abandon their chicks because they can barely take care of themselves—they can lose half of their body weight.
Field rangers, who keep a watchful eye on nesting sites, collect starving chicks and abandoned eggs and bring them to the center, where a dedicated staff hand-raises them.
At a special chick rearing unit at SANCCOB, staff use incubators to warm the small eggs until they hatch. Chicks consume a special diet—a fragrant fish slurry for the small ones and whole chunks of fish for the larger ones.
Once a chick is grown or an adult healed, SANCCOB releases it back into the wild. For many of the adolescent penguins, their release is the first time they see the ocean.
Before saying goodbye, Klusener says, each penguin receives a small chip with a unique identifying number. When the penguins return to a breeding colony and walk across a chip-reader, it gives colony managers and SANCCOB staff a valuable piece of data—the bird survived after release. Knowing that some of their penguin chicks are now adults and breeding “is really exciting stuff,” Klusener says.
McGeorge holds hope for African penguins’ future. “They’re going to keep on going,” he says. “They’re adaptable.”
Go inside the rehabilitation center and watch penguins released into the wild in the 360-degree virtual reality video above.