During the 20th century the total population of black-footed penguins (Spheniscus demersus) fell by nearly 90%. In 1956 there were 147,000 breeding couples, whereas numbers today are estimated at less than 27,000 couples. On Dassen Island alone, north-west of Cape Town, numbers have gone from about 1.5 million penguins in 1910 to less than 30,000 in 1990.
There are several factors in this dramatic decline. Its origins lie in activities that are now banned (hunting, egg-collecting, the gathering of guano, which the penguins need to make nests, to sell as fertiliser). Today penguins face new threats: pollution (oil dumping and spills), the dwindling of their food sources due to over-fishing and tidal changes, competition with sea lions for food and breeding sites, and being hunted by invasive species (wild cats).
SANCCOB is working to preserve the species on two fronts: by taking care of and rehabilitating birds affected by oil pollution, and by helping reinforce wild colonies by releasing young penguins that have been reared by hand.
Why raise black-footed penguins artificially?
At the end of every annual breeding season, late-born chicks are abandoned by their parents, either because the latter are beginning to moult (which means ceasing to feed their young) or because they want to flee the rising heat. SANCCOB takes in these malnourished chicks, which would otherwise die, and bring them up in a specialised nursery, reintroducing them into the colony once they have their full plumage.
At the same time as working to strengthen wild populations, SANCCOB is carrying out research into the reasons why some penguins, after first going to sea, return to different colonies than the ones they were born in (this happens rarely in this species: the vast majority of black-footed penguins are highly faithful to their breeding site).
Satellite tracking devices are regularly attached to released birds to chart their movements. The data obtained gives information on the birds’ behaviour and the mechanism by which they return, as adults, to their birth colony or disperse to another site. This should enable the creation of colonies on sites more propitious to their long-term survival. Eventually the program aims to establish new penguin colonies closer to fish stocks in order to optimise the rearing of young.
The Zoo de La Palmyre has helped finance SANCCOB since 2009.
Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds.
Credits: © SANCCOB, Nic Bothma, Francois Louw.