African Penguin Conservation

To establish new breeding colonies of African penguins in South Africa

 

The population size of the African penguin (Spheniscus demersus) is currently at its lowest recorded level, with less than 27 000 breeding pairs in 28 colonies left in the wild in 2008 (down from 63 000 in 2001, and from several million pairs at the turn of the last century). South Africa's northernmost breeding colony at Bird Island, Lamberts Bay, became extinct in 2006, thereby increasing the separation of the populations in Namibia and South Africa. Some of the other colonies, for example on Robben Island, have declined by as much as 75% in just two years.

The key factors responsible for the population decline are likely to be:

 

  • shortages of food;
  • poor breeding habitat, resulting from past exploitation of islands and from anticipated climate change, leading to increased heat stress, increased susceptibility of nests to flooding and increased exposure to aerial predators;
  • documented predation by Cape fur seals on adult and juvenile penguins offshore of colonies;
  • oil pollution;
  • documented predation by cats on Robben Island.

 

The main issue is now thought to be a lack of food due to overfishing and movement of fish stocks away from the remaining nesting beaches. The latter is probably the consequence of an ecosystem shift in the current around the South African Cape, the southern Benguela upwelling system, which itself may be due to anthropogenic factors including global warming.

 

Bristol Conservation and Science Foundation is working with several South African and international partners to develop technologies for establishing new penguin colonies closer to the fish stocks, where they can raise chicks successfully. Our programme includes an initial research phase to identify factors that lead the birds to breed in colonies other than their colony of origin, something that happens rarely in African penguins due to their strong breeding site fidelity. We will then use the research results to optimise ongoing conservation efforts and establish breeding colonies of penguins in places thought more suitable for their long-term survival.

 

In the first instance, ‘end of season chicks' (those that are abandoned when their parents start moulting) are taken to a hand-rearing centre run by the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB). They are kept there until they fledge, then released at selected sites and subsequently monitored for site fidelity.

 

When factors governing site fidelity are understood the project will be expanded to bring about colonisation (or re-colonisation) of breeding sites closer to fish stocks.

 

WAZA Conservation Project 08032 is implemented by Bristol Conservation and Science Foundation (Bristol Zoo Gardens) and SANCCOB, with support provided by IFAW, University of Cape Town (Animal Demography Unit), Marine and Coastal Management, Cape Nature, Robben Island Museum, Allwetterzoo Münster, Amersfoort Zoo, Basel Zoo, Burger's Zoo, Hannover Zoo, Leipzig Zoo, Living Coasts, Otariland at Le Pal Zoo, Zoo de la Palmyre and ZOOM Torino.

 

Visit www.bristolzoo.org.uk.

 

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