African Penguin

(Spheniscus demersus)


African Penguin IUCN ENDANGERED (EN)


Facts about this animal

The African penguin, the only penguin species to breed in Africa, weighs in between 2,1 and 3,7 kg and stands some 50 cm high. This species breeds around 4 years of age, laying one to two eggs which a weight of just over a 100g each. Incubation period for the African penguin is 40 days and chicks fledge between 60 and 130 days. Although isolated cases of birds in their twenties have been reported, the average lifespan of these penguins is 10 years.


African penguins have a swimming speed of up to 20 km/hour, and have been recorded diving to a depth of 130m, although dives of less than 30m are more common. African penguins feed on Anchovy Engraulis capensis and Sardine, Sardinops sagax. The African penguin breeds at 27 colonies between Hollams Bird Island, Namibia and Bird Island, Algoa Bay, South Africa. These sites include eight islands and one mainland site along the coast of southern Namibia; 10 islands and two mainland sites along the coast of Western Cape Province, South Africa and six islands in Algoa Bay, Eastern Cape Province, South Africa.


Adult African penguins feeding chicks forage within 20-46 km of their colony, mostly within 3 km of the coast. Adult birds generally remain within 400 km of their breeding locality, but juveniles regularly move in excess of 1000 km from their natal islands. The African penguin population has been in decline throughout the twentieth century. Numbers of birds exceeded 1.5 million at the beginning of the centuary, but had fallen to an estimated 180 000 by the early 1990s. The species is presently classified as "vulnerable" under the IUCN red data list criteria. If current trends continue, it is only a matter of time before the species becomes endangered. Causes of decline in the early part of the twentieth century can be attributed to the massive disturbance at breeding colonies due to guano collecting activities, and the large-scale removal of penguin eggs for human consumption (it is estimated that in the first half of the 20th century 48% of eggs produced at Dassen Island, South Africa were harvested).


More recently, an expanding Cape fur seal population which competes for a limited food resource, and marine pollution, most notibly oil spills, have continued the downward trend in the African penguin population.

In addition to the above, the African penguin population today, experience numerous other threats: In hot conditions, heat stress causes parents to abandon clutches to cool themselves in the sea. Losses to Kelp Gulls Larus dominicanus and other predators of eggs and chicks then frequently occur. African Penguins attempt to reduce heat stress by breeding in shaded areas, under bushes and in burrows. However, as a consequence of removal of accumulated deposits of guano in which burrows can be excavated, penguins have been forced to nest on the surface, increasing their susceptibility to heat stress. Heavy rain may result in flooding of nests, drowning of small chicks and losses of older chicks to hypothermia.


Endoparasites, such as worms occur in the gastro-intestinal tract of these penguin, and in their kidneys and lungs, while ectoparasites such as lice, ticks and fleas are common. Aspergillosis, a fungus that affects the lungs has also been recorded in Afrivcan penguin. The African penguin is susceptable to avian malaria Plasmodium relictum, Babesiosis (tick bite fever), Newcastle Disease virus and Avian cholera Pasturella multocida. Commercial purse-seine fisheries off South Africa and Namibia catch large quantities of Sardine and Anchovy, which are important prey items for African Penguins.


In addition to fishing, greatly expanded herds of Cape Fur Seals Arctocephalus pusillus have decreased availability of food taken by African penguins Disturbance arises from activities at breeding localities, such as maintenance, angling and swimming. Disturbance is most damaging during breeding, at times causing panic and desertions of nest sites with losses of eggs and small chicks to Kelp Gulls. Both Great White Sharks Carcharadon carcharias and Cape Fur Seals are responsable for killing penguins, while Kelp Gulls and Sacred Ibis also prey on eggs and chicks, as do feral cats .


Oil spills have major impact on African penguins, especially when the oil washes ashore at breeding localities. Oil kills penguins by impairing the insulative capacity of their feathers, so that they die of hypothermia in water or of starvation on land because hypothermia makes it impossible for them to feed at sea. Ingested oil may produce a range of physiological abnormalities . Catastrophic oil spills occur irregularly, but there is persistent chronic oiling.


In 1968, the Southern African National Foundation for Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB), was established to cater for ill, injured, oiled and orphaned sea birds, and its greatest success has been with African Penguins. Survival of rehabilitated birds was found not to differ significantly from survival of birds that had never been oiled or treated. The oldest of these was aged 24 years when last seen at Dyer Island, South Africa in October 1995. It is one of five rehabilitated African Penguins known to have attained an age of over 20 years old.

Did you know?
that adult penguins are countershaded (dark dorsal, light ventral) because this helps to conceal swimming penguins from predators such as killer whales, sharks or leopard seals? When viewed from above, the dark dorsal side blends in with the darker ocean depths. When viewed from beneath, the light ventral side helps in with the lighter surface of the sea.


Class AVES
Name (Scientific) Spheniscus demersus
Name (English) African Penguin
Name (French) Manchot du Cap
Name (German) Brillenpinguin
Name (Spanish) Ping├╝ino del Cabo
Local names Afrikaans: Brilpikkewyn
isiXhosa: Inguza
CITES Status Appendix II
CMS Status Appendix II



Photo Copyright by
Paul Mannix



Range Namibia, South Africa
Habitat Rocky offshore islands, generally within 40 km of the coast, and, less frequently rocky shores of the mainland.
Wild population Approx. 52,000 mature individuals (2010) (Red List IUCN 2011)
Zoo population 1'761 reported to ISIS.In Europe, 39 zoos with a total of more than 1100 penguins participate in the EEP.

In the Zoo

African Penguin


How this animal should be transported

For air transport, Container Note 22 of the IATA Live Animals Regulations should be followed.


Find this animal on ZooLex


Photo Copyright by
Max Lieberman

Why do zoos keep this animal

The African penguin is rated vulnerable and populations are generally declining. Zoos therefore engage in cooperative conservation breeding with a view of maintaining a viable ex situ population that fulfils primarily an educational and ambassadorial role. Several zoos keeping the species support in situ conservation projects.