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Species Survival Plan Highlight

By Steve Sarro and Gayle Sirpenski
min read

African Penguin SSP® : A Leader Within the Flock

Found in the waters off southern Africa, the African penguin is an endangered species that once numbered in the millions. Today, wild population estimates are approximately 13,000 breeding pairs. The decline is rapid and ongoing with a 75 percent decline during the past 20 years mainly due to a scarcity of prey fish. In other words, the penguins are starving which leads to poor health and reduced reproductive success. Competition with commercial fisheries, habitat loss, pollution, human disturbance, and extreme weather conditions are compounding the problems in Namibia and South Africa. 

In Association of Zoos and Aquariums-accredited facilities, the African penguin is thriving. With exceptional husbandry and medical care, the African penguin is a cornerstone for conservation messaging and educational outreach. This is a highly recognizable and charismatic species which makes them a prime candidate to engage our guests. 

Steve Sarro, curator at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington, DC, and Gayle Sirpenski, animal management specialist at Mystic Aquarium in Mystic, Conn., have managed the African Penguin Species Survival Plan® program since its inception in 1995. During this time, eleven SSP Breeding and Transfer Plans have been published. The population has continued to grow and remains in excellent genetic and demographic standing. Our combined strengths for this “tag-team” approach have served the SSP well by engaging our members in effective population management practices and promoting a spirit of cooperation for the good of the zoo and aquarium collections. 

The goals of the African Penguin SSP are to maintain a sustainable population within the 51 AZA-accredited facilities, support field conservation efforts, and promote AZA’s SAFE: Saving Animals From Extinction initiatives. The SSP population has grown by 47 percent since 2005 with  98.77 percent genetic diversity maintained. Presently, the North American population stands at 587.537.18 (1,142 total) with our target set at 1,500 penguins. We actively participate in the SAFE African Penguin program, have promoted to our members SANCCOB’s Animal Professional Experience (APE), and have three on-going medical projects to expand our knowledge of medical issues (avian malaria treatment, improving aspergillosis diagnostics, and identifying causes of aberrant molting). A new SAFE goal has been added to examine chick mortality before one year of age to assess causes and develop solutions. 

The African Penguin SSP is very proud of our 25-year history of continuing accomplishments. We appreciate AZA’s recognition of the African Penguin SSP and remain dedicated to the penguin’s sustainable future in zoos and aquariums and in the wild. 

Steve Sarro is a curator at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington, DC.
Gayle Sirpenski is an animal management specialist at Mystic Aquarium in Mystic, Conn.

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