3 August 2010
The African Penguin
It is always sad to report a re-classification of a bird species when things are getting worse for the bird. The African Penguin Spheniscus demersus has been upgraded (or should that be downgraded?) from being listed as Vulnerable to now being Endangered. The population has dropped to an estimated 25 000 pairs that still live along the shores of South Africa.
As a student I was lucky enough to work on one of the nesting islands in Algoa Bay called St Croix. The penguins were then called Jackass Penguins after their braying call. It took a while before I got used to it and was able to get any sleep. The population was healthy and the biggest dangers were oil spills and anglers who still fished off the island. The angler could lose his line and snag quite a few penguins with fishing line. They were banned from the island. In any case it was a special experience and I bore the scar on my finger from a penguin beak with pride – they are tough fighters!
So what went wrong? Well guano was removed from many of the nesting islands and the penguins used to burrow into this to create their nests. Removal of the thick layer has meant that the nests are flooded when it rains. With a recent cold spell we had some 600 penguin deaths on Bird Island which is not far from St Croix. They are looking at artificial nesting houses for the penguins. With increasing population there has been increase pressure on fish stocks which form the primary diet of the Penguin. Fewer fish equals less food for the penguins which means they have to swim further to get food for the nestlings which means they are under more pressure. Good news is a ban on netting and trawling fish around St Croix and despite the short length of the ban until now an improvement in fish stocks has been reported.
Other factors are oil spills. The construction of a new harbour in Algoa Bay might be good for the economy but it will lead to more ship movements and the danger of more spills. I don’t know what the effect the avian malaria which is found in many of the penguins will be in the long run but it is an additional worry.
One good thing is the increased concern for the plight of the penguins in a country which has many other problems. The South African Marine Rehabilitation and Education Centre (SAMREC) in Port Elizabeth has new premises and this weekend I watched a few oiled penguins being treated. The process is far more scientific than in the old days, the centre is well designed and the people are caring.
The greatest moment was however the picture you see above – African Penguins being released into the wild after treatment!