In 2001, there were 56 000 pairs of African penguins in South Africa. By 2014, there were just 19 000 pairs. This drastic decline has prompted BirdLife South Africa to try something it has never done before to prevent the penguin from going extinct.
Led by Christina Hagen, the Pamela Isdell Fellow of Penguin Conservation at BirdLife South Africa, the organisation wants to establish a new African penguin colony that will help to increase its numbers.
The challenge to save the African penguin from extinction is proving to be massive, according to BirdLife South Africa chief executive Mark Anderson.
“The penguins need all the help they can get. Establishing new mainland colonies are immensely important management interventions.”
Two major populations of the birds remain, made up of numerous colonies in Western Cape between West Coast National Park and Gansbaai, and of colonies in Algoa Bay, Eastern Cape. The problem for conservationists is the 600km gap between the two populations.
Hagen said penguins bred more successfully on islands, where there were no terrestrial predators. But because there was no island between Gansbaai and Port Elizabeth, the gap remained. It was for this reason the new colony would have to be built on the mainland.
BirdLife South Africa was still assessing suitable areas to establish the colony. For now, the choice was between De Hoop in Overberg and Plettenberg Bay on the Garden Route, she said.
The choice of location will be based on whether there is an abundance of sardines and anchovies in the area; the fish are the penguins’ two main sources of food.
“Our overriding concern is that they should be in a location where there are enough sardines and anchovies in the sea,” said Hagen. “The Western Cape sardine stock is shifting eastwards which is why we are looking in those areas.”
Besides having enough fish to feed on, there are numerous other factors that determine the perfect location for penguins. Hagen said the land had to be good enough for penguins to burrow and make a nest, the area must make it easy to protect the birds from predators such as caracals, leopards and mongooses, and it should not be too close to sources of pollution such as oil.
BirdLife South Africa wants to relocate specific birds to the new colony.
“We’ll be using young birds that have fledged and are ready to go to sea but haven’t bred yet,” said Hagen.
It will also relocate chicks that have been abandoned. The area will be monitored remotely and be fenced so that predators and people cannot interfere with the birds.
In 2010, the African penguin was listed as endangered by BirdLife International, meaning that it had decreased by over 50% in three penguin generations, or approximately 30 years. The decline is expected to continue.
The drop in population is largely driven by human activity, according to BirdLife.
“First egg-collecting and guano-scraping caused enormous losses. Then overfishing in the 1960s continued to cause decreases.”
The biggest concern is a lack of food. Penguins eat mainly sardines and anchovies, which are also the target of the commercial purse seine fishing industry. A purse seine is a large wall of netting that encircles an entire area or school of fish. On average, large purse seine vessels can catch up to 20 tons of fish a day, says the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, with some vessels able to haul more.
Today, some penguin colonies have been so drastically reduced that they are now vulnerable to minor events, such as seals preying on adults, gulls taking eggs, or extreme weather causing breeding failure.
The project will also help BirdLife South Africa figure out techniques to build future colonies for penguins and other bird species. It will additionally help penguin populations spread across the western and southern coast of South Africa.
Hagen said there were continuing attempts to stop the decline but BirdLife South Africa felt more needed to be done. These included attempts to increase recruitment by maintaining and improving nesting habitat, and captive rearing and releasing of orphaned wild chicks.
Attempts to decrease mortality include eradicating invasive predators, reducing predation by natural predators around colonies such as seals, rehabilitation and release of oiled and injured penguins, disease control, and changing fishing patterns.
Building a new colony is the most drastic step taken so far.
“Trying to create a colony is a big step and it hasn’t been done before so people are a bit hesitant to try it,” said Hagen. “But we are working with a number of organisations, including the Nature’s Valley Trust and the African Penguin Population Reinforcement Working Group to help make it happen.”
African penguins were a good indicator species for the health of the ecosystem, she added. Their falling numbers meant changes were taking place in the sea.
Since the mid-1990s, sardines and anchovies have been moving east to the Agulhas area and the south coast, making it difficult for the birds to reach their prey.
“Breeding penguins can’t travel far from their colony to find food as they have to return to feed their chicks. So they can’t go further than 20 or 30 kilometres from their breeding ground.”
Hagen believes climate change has forced sardines and anchovies to move. “The change in temperature is thought to have shifted the fish because other species have also shifted.”
Additionally, high pressure from fishing on the west coast could have played a role in the fish moving east.
Despite the shift, BirdLife South Africa said the two colonies on the south coast, which supposedly should have benefited, had continued to dwindle.