African Penguins were originally called Jackass Penguins not too long ago, in fact the bird book that I use for southern Africa includes them under that latter name. I have to admit I’ve always found that name slightly amusing, although I didn’t know why it was applied to Africa’s only breeding penguin until last week at the Stony Point colony.
There are six species of penguins which have been recorded in Africa, predominantly in South Africa. All except for the African Penguin are vagrants. Even the African Penguin is quite localised, restricted by its requirement for predator-free islands or occasionally mainland sites. These mainland sites are always situated between a major town and the sea, to provide a barrier which predators cannot cross. Examples of these mainland colonies include Boulders Beach and Stony Point, with their barriers from predators being Simon’s Town and Betty’s Bay respectively. Therefore these colonies have only established recently as the towns have developed into a sufficient size, in fact both were founded in the 1980s and now contain between 2000 and 3000 penguins.
Stony Point was the colony we visited on our trip to South Africa. I would highly recommend it for anyone wanting to see the penguins in South Africa. It costs only 20 Rand (£1) to enter, and gives access to a long boardwalk which takes you directly through the colony. The penguins come so close that there are times when you are standing immediately above one which has chosen to shelter underneath the boardwalk! There are also a number of information boards along the boardwalk, one of which informed me of the etymology of the ‘Jackass’ Penguin: the species is known for its donkey-like braying sound which it often produces at night!
Humans have a long relationship with penguins, which has not always been good. This is particularly regarding guano collecting, which was a big business in the 19th century. Guano was very important during that era for farming as a manure to fertilise crops. It lead to the human colonisation of many offshore bird colonies as guano collecting became a full-time job. The problem with this in relation to African Penguins is that they nest naturally in burrows dug into guano, which therefore has to be very deep. If all the guano (often from other seabirds such as Cape Gannets or Cape Cormorants) has been removed by humans, then the penguins have nowhere to nest.
Fortunately, guano is no longer collected from areas where the penguins nest. Although, the guano layers are still not deep enough in many colonies for penguins to dig a nest. At Stony Point, we saw that artificial concrete nests had been installed. These nests are similar to a very large flowerpot lying on its side, half-buried. These have allowed the expansion of the colony where the quantity of guano available would have limited it.
There is another threat to African Penguins posed by humans. Sadly, this one is still an ongoing risk and very unpredictable: oil spills. Ships running aground can spill massive volumes of oil, which can severely harm seabird populations. Penguins are at a particular risk as they spend a lot of time near the surface of the ocean where the oil accumulates. The main problem the oil produces is that it impairs the waterproofing capabilities of the birds’ feathers. This exposes the birds to the full force of the water’s cold temperatures leading to hypothermia. Even the lucky ones who make it back to shore face consequences when they attempt to remove the oil from their feathers: it is often ingested and causes damage to the digestive system.
These threats among others have produced a catastrophic decline of 95% since the beginning of the 19th century, when 4 million penguins inhabited South Africa and Namibia. Now, there are only around 50,000 penguins left. At this rate of decline, we could see the extinction of the African Penguin in the wild by the year 2026 – just 8 years away.
Fortunately there are a number of organisations working towards a happy ending for the African Penguin. Among these, SANCCOB is the predominant group performing rescue operations on penguins, particularly those affected by oil spills, while the Dyer Island Conservation Trust has opened the African Penguin and Seabird Sanctuary in Gansbaai which will act as a centre for research and education. I am hopeful that iconic African Penguin’s downward trend can be reversed.