The African Penguin: On A Path to Extinction?

Who doesn't love penguins? Comically depicted in movies and cartoons, these charismatic, flightless birds are among the most popular animals visited in zoos and aquariums around the world. In the case of the African penguin, however, your local zoo or aquarium may be the only place you will be able to see them in the future. The wild population of African penguins is declining at an alarming rate: 60.5 percent in the past 28 years according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. In 1956, there were an estimated 141,000 pairs of African penguins. Today, scientists estimate the wild population to be only 21,000 breeding pairs.
What’s causing the dramatic decline?
Unfortunately, this question has many answers. African penguins breed on islands and a few mainland sites in Namibia and South Africa. In the western area of their range they feed mostly on sardine and anchovy in the Benguela marine ecosystem. Because this area is heavily utilized by commercial fisheries, the penguins are competing with the industry for resources. Concurrently, scientists suspect that climate change may be causing sea surface temperatures to rise. This impacts the abundance of the prey by causing a shift in the prey distribution to locations beyond the historic breeding range of the penguins.

Consequently, the adults must travel farther and expend more energy in order to find adequate food for themselves and their chicks; the result is an increase in mortality due to starvation. African penguins also face threats from predators of the sea, sky and land, such as Cape fur seals and Kelp Gulls who eat their eggs. In addition, habitat destruction has led to the loss of preferred nesting sites. Previous generations of African penguins burrowed into the deep guano deposits that covered their breeding grounds to create a safe and climate-controlled nesting place for their chicks. Decades ago, the guano was scraped away and used as fertilizer, leaving a barren landscape on which the penguins are forced to nest in shallow depressions on the surface. The chicks are exposed to excessive heat, flooding and aerial predators. Finally, the most insidious force affecting African penguins has been oil spills. Since 1948 there have been 13 major oil spill events off the coast of South Africa, some involving tanker collisions or groundings, or oil from ruptured pipelines. In 2000 the sinking of the MV Treasure, a huge vessel carrying iron ore, was responsible for the oiling of 19,000 African penguins in Table Bay. I was among the group of U.S. first responders sent to Cape Town to help with the rescue efforts. One of the saddest sights I've ever seen was row upon row of pens filled with helpless, frightened penguins covered in thick, black oil. In addition to these documented events, oil from unknown sources is a chronic problem in South Africa. The Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB) in Cape Town responds to approximately 1,000 penguins impacted by oil each year.
Can anything be done to reverse this accelerating decline?

Can anything be done to reverse this accelerating decline?
Fortunately African penguins have many allies. Most of the zoos and aquariums in the U.S. that display this species belong to the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) and participate in a program called a Species Survival Plan (SSP). The collections of African penguins in these accredited facilities are healthy and plentiful as a result of this cooperative breeding program. The SSP members are also passionately dedicated to supporting the conservation of wild penguins through fundraising efforts, donations and research.
After decades of field work, scientists have a good understanding of the penguins' breeding biology. What remains unknown is where the juveniles are spending their time before selecting a breeding ground when they are 3 to 4 years old, and what factors contribute to the decision to populate certain breeding areas. Are they dispersing to areas where resources are more abundant? In order to conduct this type of study, researchers need data loggers and satellite tags. If scientists can identify and understand the mechanisms that lead these youngsters to a particular site, they may be able to provide them with more protection from human disturbance and land-based predators.

Another conservation effort is the African Penguin Chick Bolstering Project. This program is lead by the Bristol Conservation and Science Foundation, United Kingdom, a sister organization to the Bristol Zoo, and is administered by SANCCOB. The program involves removing penguin chicks from abandoned nests and hand-rearing them in a rescue center. The penguin life cycle is basically divided into two phases: breeding and molting. The molting phase begins shortly after the breeding season and the chicks are normally fledged before the onset of molting. If the timing of these two phases overlap, the adult penguins could perish from starvation; therefore, penguin parents sometimes must abandon their chicks before they are fully fledged. The adult penguin must prepare itself for the molt which is very energy demanding and requires quality nutritional support. If not for the efforts of the bolstering project, these abandoned chicks would starve to death. The "bolstered" chicks are released after approximately six weeks, because under the supportive care they are given at SANCCOB, they grow quickly and are able to feed on their own. There is also a concern that if they keep the chicks beyond the six-week period, the chicks will become dependent on humans for survival.

African penguins were recently designated as "Endangered" under the U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA) and on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species. This listing helps to raise awareness of the threats facing this species and the significant decline in the population throughout all of its range. Species listed under ESA are federally protected from certain detrimental practices and have a better chance of receiving support for conservation programs.

Artificial nest boxes are now being placed in many of the penguins' breeding areas. The penguins readily inhabit the hut-like fiberglass structures, which are buried in the ground or covered with rocks to help prevent overheating. Their use has resulted in a significantly higher number of reared fledglings than occurs in surface nests.

Currently, there is also a research project conducting a comprehensive health assessment of the wild population of African penguins. Scientists suspect their health may be adversely affected by a chronic lack of adequate nutrition, petroleum toxicity or by infectious diseases. Researchers from Mystic Aquarium in Mystic, Conn., known for their work in the field of immune response, will collaborate by overseeing the portion of the study that looks into how the penguins are coping with these environmental "stressors."

Scientists are very concerned about the future of the African penguin. According to some estimates the species could be extinguished from the wild in less than 20 years. At the current rate of decline without intervention from the governments, conservationists and penguin enthusiasts, this will likely happen much sooner.
How You Can Help
You can make a big difference. Through your generosity, you can help the Mystic Aquarium's African Penguin research, care and conservation efforts in Mystic and South Africa to stem population losses and preserve African penguins.

  • Donate. Pennies for Penguins, fundraisers and website donations help support the species-saving mission.

  • Interact. Broaden your mind and smile with an info-packed African penguin "Encounter" hour at the Mystic Aquarium; but be prepared, you might get a feathery laptop visitor.

  • Volunteer. Assist animal care staff, educate aquarium visitors or guide school groups.

  • Run, walk or waddle for penguins. Grab your family and friends and join the annual Run or Walk for the Penguins each October through Mystic, Conn. The money you raise helps care for African penguins everywhere.
For more information
Mystic Aquarium