African Penguins
Photo Credit: Penguin Alert

African penguins at Stony Beach in Betty’s Bay are feeling the benefit of technology where a sneaky scale is tracking their weight.

 

Western Cape, South Africa (24 June 2024) – In December 2023, foreign tourism spending in the Western Cape clocked in at a whopping R1.9b. According to the City’s Mayco Member for Tourism, James Vos, the year soared to new heights, with 2.8 million international passengers and a decade-long doubling trend. As these hordes of visitors landed at Cape Town International Airport they were greeted with cheerful images of Table Mountain, Robben Island and African Penguins. But 10 years from now, this may not be the case. One of South Africa’s premier tourism offerings may cease to exist.

The African Penguin population has declined by 99% in the past 120 years. It is time to pull out all the stops to prevent the species from extinction – which scientists predict could be a reality by 2035 if urgent action isn’t taken.

Birdlife South Africa and SANCCOB have taken the Minister of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment to court for failing to implement ‘meaningful closures’ to purse seine fishing around penguin colonies, which, they say, is promoting the decline in penguin populations as the birds face an increasing struggle to find food.

“The main issue is their food supply and other threats at sea, which people don’t see,” says Alistair McInnes, Seabird Conservation Programme Manager for BirdLife South Africa. “When people visit colonies at Stony Point or Boulders, they don’t understand what’s affecting the penguin populations.”

The use of technology is helping scientists better understand both the foraging habits and the effects of food shortages. Advanced systems that collect real-time data on penguin foraging have been installed at four of the six at-risk penguin colonies. This involves using weighbridges that monitor the condition of penguins in real-time, something that’s usually hard to measure and not visible to researchers and the public.

The weighbridge system tracks penguins as they cross it, allowing researchers to gather important data. For example, at Stony Beach in Betty’s Bay, which has around 1,500 breeding pairs, the system can tell how much weight a penguin gains or loses after a foraging trip to sea and how long they spend hunting. This information helps determine how food availability influences penguin condition and how this affects their breeding effort; penguins abandon their nests if they are in poor body condition.

Funding for this project comes from Massmart, ‘Saving Animals from Extinction’ and the Charl van der Merwe Trust. The corporation is also helping to develop an interactive website to showcase the work.

Over the last 30 years, the number of breeding African penguins in South Africa has plummeted by 73%, from 42,500 pairs in 1991 to 10,400 pairs in 2021, according to the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB). The technology will help researchers better understand what is causing this massive decline and manage the colonies better. By comparing a penguin’s weight before and after its sea trips and noting how long it hunts, scientists can gauge how food scarcity impacts their population.

“The biggest problem is the availability of their prey. African penguins mainly eat anchovy and sardine, which are under pressure from both natural changes and competition with the fishing industry,” explains McInnes.

African Penguins are not only a tourist attraction and an important part of the ecosystem, they are also an indicator species. When penguin numbers plummet, it means that we should be concerned about the overall state of our ocean. Use of technology enables quicker, better-informed decisions about how to prioritise conservation measures to conserve penguins, (improve sardine populations), and enhance the marine ecosystem.

Visit the new website at www.penguinalert.org


Sources: Supplied
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About the Author

Tyler Leigh Vivier is a writer for Good Things Guy.

Her passion is to spread good news across South Africa with a big focus on environmental issues, animal welfare and social upliftment. Outside of Good Things Guy, she is an avid reader and lover of tea.

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