Saving penguins in South Africa

By: Ric Urban, Chief Conservation Officer

Our AZA African Penguin Tagging Team moves from the mainland to Robben Island. They’re spending 12 days in South Africa, tagging penguins and gathering data on Africa’s endangered penguins. The team includes Mike McClure from Maryland Zoo and Kylene Plemons from Sea World San Diego. Over the 12 days, the team is visiting a couple of penguin rescue and rehabilitation facilities as well as collecting data in three penguin colonies; the Robben Island colony, the Boulder’s Beach colony and the Stony Point colony.

Boulders colony 1

Experts from SeaWorld and the Maryland Zoo traveled to South Africa to work alongside the South African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB) in an effort to help tag the endangered African penguin. The trip is part of the SAFE: Saving Animals From Extinction African Penguin Conservation Action Plan. Since the early 1900’s the population of African penguins in the wild has dropped by a staggering 97%.

Robben Island
After a couple days of orientation and training at SANCCOB, the AZA African Penguin Tagging Team headed out to stay with the colony on Robben Island. Robben Island was once the site of the prison which held Nelson Mandela and once a thriving population of African penguins.  With the introduction of invasive species and introduced species such as house cats and rabbits, the penguin population has plummeted to approximately 3,000 birds.

Logging field work

Experts from SeaWorld and the Maryland Zoo traveled to South Africa to work alongside the South African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB) in an effort to help tag the endangered African penguin. The trip is part of the SAFE: Saving Animals From Extinction African Penguin Conservation Action Plan. Since the early 1900’s the population of African penguins in the wild has dropped by a staggering 97%.

Saving Species
While staying on Robben Island, the AZA African Penguin Tagging Team will be working with Dr. Richard Sherley, from University of Exeter.  Dr. Sherley has been studying African Penguins on Robben Island since 2007. His research focuses on the nesting success, survival and dispersal of seabirds to understand the impact of anthropogenic and environmental change in marine ecosystems.

The AZA African Penguin Tagging Team was able to tag and collect data on 53 penguins on Robben Island.  It was an impressive number for Dr. Sherley and Dr. Katrin Ludynia, field biologist for SANCCOB and the University of Cape Town.

MarylandZoo MMcClure

Maryland Zoo Curator Mike McClure spent the day tagging penguin chicks.

In an email, Mike McClure said, “Yesterday was very successful as we located and checked about half of the nests we were looking for. We transpondered 22 birds (6 adults and 16 fledglings) and gathered a lot of raw data on each bird. We also learned more about the project than we could ever do had we not been here in person.”

nesting penguins

The field conditions are quite harsh, penguins find areas to nest in dense, thorny underbrush which is a great defense against predators and provides protection from the weather.

The field conditions are quite harsh, penguins find areas to nest in dense, thorny underbrush which is a great defense against predators and provides protection from the weather.  Therefore it makes it difficult to locate the nests, and capture and collect data on the birds.

 

Boulder’s Beach
After spending several days on Robben Island, it was time to return to the mainland and head to Boulder’s Beach. Boulder’s Beach is one of the few mainland colonies of African penguins. Over 700,000 visitors come to see the penguins at Boulder’s annually. This colony is threatened by predation from wild and domestic animals, parasites, disturbance by guests and being hit by vehicles.

Boulders penguins in surf

Boulder’s Beach is one of the few mainland colonies of African penguins. Over 700,000 visitors come to see the penguins at Boulder’s annually.

At the time of writing this Blog, the AZA African Penguin Tagging Team was traveling to Gansbaii, which is home to the Dyer Island Conservation Trust (DICT) and the African Penguin and Seabird Sanctuary (APSS).  The APSS is another rescue and rehabilitation facility for African penguins and seabirds along the South African Coastline.  There, the team is going to work with African Penguins at APSS and learn about their programs for rehabilitation and release of the penguins.

After spending the weekend in Gansbaii, the AZA African Penguin Tagging Team will be heading back toward Cape Town to Betty’s Bay and Stony Point. Stony Point sits on this coastal bay and is home to the only penguin colony that is presently increasing in population.  This area is managed by our partners, Cape Nature.  Habitat restoration is important and the removal invasive plants have improved the area for the penguins.  This beach also sees a seasonal increase of penguins in November, when birds come from their island nesting colony to gorge on fish and molt. After the molt, they head back to their island colony for breeding and nesting.

There has been much learned and much more to learn in future trips to work with the field biologists, rangers and researchers.  The information gathered should help support management decisions and improve habitats for the nesting colonies. The goals will be set higher for 2017 and I hope to be reporting to all of our supporters from South Africa next spring on the successes of the AZA African Penguin Individual Identification Project.

If you are interested in helping support our efforts in protecting the African Penguins, you can:

  • Contribute to the WAVE Foundation at the Newport Aquarium (wavefoundation.org) to support the AZA African Penguin Tagging Project
  • Participate in a “Penguin Encounter” at the Newport Aquarium. A portion of the proceeds of your encounter benefit the Aquatic Conservation Fund.
  • “Round-Up” your purchase in the gift shop to support the “Dollars for Conservation” program
  • Adopt” a Penguin online from the WAVE Foundation at the Newport Aquarium
  • Download the Seafood Watch App and contribute to eating sustainable seafood
  • Reduce, Reuse and Recycle – reducing our dependency for plastic will help lower the amount of plastic pollution in the environment around us and in our oceans

Read more about the African Penguin PIT Tagging Project in Part 1: Chief Conservation Officer at Newport Aquarium leads efforts in saving African penguins

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