The Association of Zoos & Aquariums, with its member aquariums and zoos and a variety of partners, are taking action to save species through AZA SAFE: Saving Animals From Extinction. SAFE combines the power of zoo and aquarium visitors with the resources and collective expertise of AZA members and partners, all focused on saving species. Our collective action will help save vulnerable wildlife species from extinction and protect them for future generations.
By: Kevin Graham
Bird Supervisor – Dallas Zoo
AZA SAFE Artificial Nest Development Project Coordinator
In March 2016 a workshop in Cape Town, South Africa was held bringing together people and organizations from around the globe with the sole purpose of examining the nesting needs and current challenges of African penguins. Along with the Dallas Zoo’s VP of Education and Conservation, Dr. Patty McGill, I had the privilege of meeting with the numerous people who work in the field and in South African zoological facilities with these penguins. This included all of the colony managers and many field biologists from South Africa, researchers from several universities, all involved government and non-government organizations (Cape Nature, SANPARKS, SANCCOB, and Birdlife International), and representatives from PAZAA and AZA.
To ensure that communication chains were well formed during the process, the entire group representing the South African community pursuing the recovery of the penguins voted during the workshop to nominate a single person as their coordinator that AZA SAFE will use as the primary point of contact. This person, Trudi Malan from the Dyer Island Conservation Trust, is responsible for ensuring communication through the entire working group in South Africa maintains at a high level. To facilitate this, it was decided that all involved would be added to an information sharing site (Freedcamp) that would be utilized for information exchange. Not every person will choose to be involved at every level of the artificial nest development, but every person will have the opportunity to do so if they choose.
For quite some time, AZA SAFE will continue to coordinate with this working group to develop a crucial nesting plan to help the birds reverse the population decline as one part in a multi-tiered approach to species recovery. Over the past 100 years, the population of African penguins has declined from more than two million breeding pairs to slightly more than 20,000 breeding pairs left, even with over two decades of work to try to stem the tide having already occurred. This dramatic decline has resulted from many factors, unfortunately all of which are human-related and this group has come together to attempt to reverse the trend.
In the recent past, organizations and colony managers in South Africa have made several attempts to develop an artificial nest design that African penguins could use to supplement the little remaining nesting habitat. These attempts have seen very limited success, and in some attempts they inadvertently introduced new challenges for the penguins. In many cases, the penguins chose not to use the nesting structures, either due to overall design, excessive heat accumulation, ectoparasite buildup in the structure, and other potentially unknown factors. In some locations, this has led penguins to nest on the surface, exposing their eggs and chicks to additional risks that were previously avoided in the guano burrow nests.
Among other risks (predation being one key risk), exposed surface nests face the challenge of temperature extremes not found in the burrow nests, where temperatures are regulated by the geothermic action of the surrounding substrate. This leads to a higher rate of nest abandonment when the climate is unsuitable for the adults to continue their nesting attempt.
The working group of approximately two dozen people teamed up for a full day conference with the sole focus on improving the nesting quality of the penguins. Sessions included evaluating the current situation, brainstorming ideas for future designs, evaluating the unique challenges that each individual colony faces, etc. After a long day, the future goals of the working group were established and the path forward towards the development of the new artificial nest design was set.
Following the conclusion of the workshop, numerous days were spent in many of the various colonies talking with colony managers, wildlife biologists, and researchers to gain a clearer perspective of what challenges each of the colonies currently faces. For some colonies, the primary challenge in nesting for the penguins was almost solely usable nest locations, while others had that in addition to risks of thermal management, predation, parasite infestation, and human resource usages (boat ramps, housing, etc.). It was acknowledged both during the workshop and in the field that there is not a one-size-fits-all approach to the design of the artificial nest.