John Werth – Pan-African Association of Zoos and Aquaria (PAAZA), Florida, South Africa
In aligning ourselves with global trends, WAZA strategies and visitor expectations, the Pan-African Association of Zoos and Aquaria (PAAZA) in conjunction with East London Aquarium have established a conservation and research project – Penguin Find. One of the most important climate indicators, the endangered African penguin (Spheniscus demersus) has been seen in abundance in the waters off the East London coast. East London Aquarium is the holder of one of the most genetically sound assurance populations within the PAAZA conservation initiative, the African Preservation Programme (APP). Following on from the successful DNA sampling and trans-pondering of the resident African penguin population at East London Aquarium in November 2015, a research programme has been established in conjunction with PAAZA to find and monitor African penguins in the East London region. This research programme involves academics, scientists, rangers, the South African Police Waterwing, fishermen and skippers/commercial captains.
For the past four to five years, there have been significantly cold currents gracing the East London shores over the summer period, but bringing with it changes that are new to the area. The area has experienced an annual red tide in varying intensities and a number of stranded marine animals that all seem to relate back to the cold water temperatures and upwelling. Most significantly, the 2015 season has seen the unprecedented influx of African penguins just off the East London city coastline. It is normal to encounter small groups of birds at a time, but last year sea monitoring estimated over a thousand birds in one area for an abnormally extended period. This coincided with an upwelling way beyond previous boundaries. There are a number of unanswered questions on why and how African penguins are around the East London area in such significant numbers, where they are from, where they moved to and, importantly, where they are colonising. Based on various other research initiatives along this famous coastline, this may be the initial stage of a mega-event for the East London area and for this endangered species.
In an effort to document any sightings of African penguins in the East London area, PAAZA in conjunction with East London Aquarium have put together a community campaign where they request the Buffalo City (East London provincial region) public, communities and visitors to forward any information of sightings of African penguins at sea or on land using their mobile phones. This campaign has been launched as www.penguinfind.com and it invites the public to forward geotagged pictures via WhatsApp to the website or via Google maps tagging on an embedded map in the website. This information will be collated with relevant scientific data to contribute to the overall research of this endangered species and climate change.
Importantly, East London Aquarium will continue to address the reality of stranded African penguins that need medical assistance. Most important to this research programme is the involvement of the greater community of East London and visitors to the region. This is a research project with a community-based campaign attached entitled Black & White is the New "Gold" and will be coordinated under PAAZA through its various portfolios. We will be bringing in a strong oceanographic component, along with scientists and students. This will further compliment the successful and crucially important genetics component through our partner NZG/NRF and their national laboratory and biobank. There is considerable concern about the poor conservation status of the African penguin and that it may become extinct in the future, if drastic conservation steps are not immediately implemented. Through Penguin Find and its related research, we intend to address many areas of research needs identified in the African Penguin Biodiversity Management Plan.