Many of us began in the zoo and aquarium community when African penguins were thriving in our facilities and were thought to be stable in southern Africa. During the COVID-19 pandemic, we have continued to meet, report, engage, and push forward, even if news from the field has been limited by travel and other restrictions.
Thankfully, South Africa determined that work on endangered African penguins was ‘essential work’ and field scientists were able to leave their cloisters. We were anxiously anticipating their news—and now this: African penguins, once numbering in the millions, are at risk of extinction in southern Africa in 15 years1.
Between 2019 and 2021 in South Africa, the population of breeding birds declined by 23 percent. During the same span of time in Namibia, the population of African penguins remained small and declined only modestly, having undergone rapid decline earlier. Because the South African population continues to decline, the Namibian population now represents approximately 1/3 of the total global population. The importance of Namibia has increased dramatically as a potential stronghold for a fragile but consistent population.
Historically, the main threats were guano harvesting causing deterioration of nesting habitat, egg-collecting, and human disturbance. More recent anthropogenic threats include both catastrophic and low-grade oil spills and contamination, entanglement in fishing gear, unsustainable fisheries, and reduced prey availability driven by warming oceans.
Additionally, poorly regulated ecotourism activities could negatively impact penguin breeding colonies.
Responding to new conditions, SAFE African Penguin has reorganized its projects. It is essential to maintain a strategic perspective: we must stop the decline, understand and manage critical challenges, and leverage a healthy population of African penguins in human care.
The Disaster Preparedness and Response Projects continue to make progress focusing on oil spills and other incidents (disease outbreak, colony abandonment, etc.) that affect large numbers of penguins. To date, nine disaster response/rescue plans have been developed in South Africa and Namibia. SAFE African Penguin has purchased more than $150,000 in rescue equipment and storage containers. These have been positioned in four locations to make the needed equipment available to colonies suffering a crisis.
As a result, colleagues in-country have been able to rescue and rehabilitate more than 250 oiled penguins. When a bunkering fuel oil spill occurred in the Eastern Cape, responders were able to rescue more than 100 penguins, and later reported that preparedness and strategically placed equipment shaved two-three days off response time, illustrating the power of collaborations and SAFE support.
In addition, Jess Phillips at the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore, Md., has achieved certification as a HAZWOPER trainer and has conducted response trainings for 50 responders in range countries and with AZA members. Jess is now developing a database of certified AZA members who can respond to a Level 3 emergency in South Africa/Namibia.
SAFE African Penguin also funded response to the avian influenza outbreak in Namibia by paying for sampling, transportation of samples, and consulting with veterinary staff. Interacting with colleagues in Namibia increased awareness of the biological value of the Namibian population and the limited resources available there for monitoring or rescuing penguins and other seabirds.
Phillips facilitated organization of a workshop in Namibia—the results of which included new partners and funding, collaborations among regional stakeholders, specific action plans, prioritizing the design and implementation of a penguin rescue and rehab facility and a rehab center of excellence. Until the new facility is built, a small facility for rescuing up to 20 penguins has been refurbished and relationships with SANCCOB in South Africa have been reinforced.
SAFE African Penguin has also contributed to the support of a ranger stationed on Robben Island. The Ranger Program (created by SANCCOB) provides critical routine monitoring, data collection, and first-responder service, along with other important conservation activities at key sites.
Another aspect of disaster response has been continued support by the Species Survival Plan® of SANCCOB’s South African chick-bolstering program. Although this program had been supported by AZA members prior to SAFE, SAFE African Penguin has given these activities strategic context and emphasis. Eggs and chicks brought to the centers have either been abandoned, are starving, or are in other distress. In a typical year, 500-1,000 chicks are rescued. The centers have a 70 percent hatch rate for eggs and 80 percent release rate for chicks, indicating the important contribution this project makes to mitigating the population decline.
Within these projects, SAFE African Penguin has cultivated 18 in-country partners, including 11 new partners recruited in Namibia focused on securing their small but significant population of African penguins.
“A new partnership developed in Namibia with DeBeers Diamonds and their NAMDEB Foundation, Government agencies, NGOs and representatives of SAFE is a good model to show what can be done when partners work together to achieve common goals,” said Phillips.
The Artificial Nest Project is part of a larger focus on habitat restoration with goals of helping penguins thrive and ameliorating habitat deficiencies affecting breeding success. In the past, artificial nests were tried, but previous designs overheated and/or provided habitat for ectoparasites (ticks and fleas). In early stages of SAFE nest design, a number of AZA-accredited facilities assisted with monitoring environmental performance of the nests.
Fifteen designs were tested in the field, and two with appropriate microclimate stability were selected. During 2018, prototype nests were further tested in situ, on Bird and Dyer Islands in South Africa. In 2019, larger numbers of the ‘final’ design nests were delivered to nesting islands. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, further production and installation has been slowed.
To compare microclimate data among nest types, temperature and humidity probes were installed in artificial, natural guano nests (which are in very short supply), and open surface nests. Microclimate data are uploaded to a database for analysis.
The design and materials of these nests, while being continuously assessed, show excellent environmental and biological results. Studies of ectoparasite infestations in the old artificial nests suggest that infestations were higher in hot and dry nests. Because these new artificial nests emulate conditions in natural guano nests, it is speculated that these can be managed to avoid tick infestations.
Biological monitoring includes occupancy rates and fledging success. Since being deployed, the usage rate exceeds 90 percent and chick success rates exceed 50 percent. Of note, during an extremely strong storm on Bird Island in 2020 there was drastic chick mortality in exposed nests found by SANParks Marine Rangers while all chicks inside the artificial nests survived.
The Individual Identification (PIT tag) Project builds on work initiated and pursued by scientific colleagues in South Africa. SAFE has focused primarily on underwriting costs of equipment and supplies as well as hiring boats to travel to the study sites.
SAFE African Penguin has supported the insertion of 4,000 transponders in penguins in the colonies along with a few thousand transponders inserted in rehabilitated birds from all centers.
Several hand-held Allflex readers funded by SAFE are in use in major breeding sites and rehab centers. Hand-held readers have also been provided to researchers conducting beach surveys to better understand mortality patterns. Weighbridges have been installed in a few sites connected with the transponder-reader system. This permits detection of foraging success through recording an individual’s time away from the colony as well as weight gain during a trip to sea.
SAFE African Penguin’s consistent funding of this project is making a major impact. Approximately 500 individuals at each major colony are now transpondered, and a significant fraction of the total South African penguin population is transpondered.
Looking forward, these tools will help elucidate patterns of mortality, influence recommendations on managing prey fish based on actual data, and can potentially be used to inform discussions about sites for release of rehabbed chicks or for locating a new colony. Scientists speculate they may be able to raise the alarm if foraging success fails during the breeding season in order to manage fish extraction near the colonies or predict sites where chicks may need to be rescued.
The Education and Engagement sub-committee developed the first set of African penguin and SAFE African Penguin materials as part of World Penguin Day and African Penguin Appreciation Day. This team recently launched a SAFE African Penguin website where visitors can learn more about the SAFE projects and issues affecting African penguins. Their goals of networking, public education, and community engagement will benefit conservation efforts.
The African Penguin SSP is a vital member of SAFE African Penguin; they continue to identify, prioritize, and support projects that improve our understanding and care of penguins in human care and readily share any results with colleagues caring for rescued and rehabilitated penguins in southern Africa. The SSP recruited several AZA-accredited facilities to assist field partners with a study of aberrant molt in penguins. Results from four studies (avian malaria, aspergillosis, and irregular molt) have now been published in peer-reviewed journals. The SSP also actively recruits new AZA partners for SAFE African Penguin.
To date, the priority of SAFE African Penguin has been to fund and implement ongoing projects that contribute to stopping the decline; this must continue. Education and engagement programs have recently gained momentum. Further engagement of AZA audiences is critical. However, urgent focus needs to address long-term critical challenges. Studies in South Africa indicate that a key driver of the decline of African penguins is unavailable prey fish suggesting this may be driven by both unsustainable fisheries practices as well as ocean warming affecting prey abundance and distribution.
Several proposals have been indicated; gathering all stakeholders to co-design conservation solutions is a priority. SAFE African Penguin is in discussions with colleagues in South Africa and Namibia to determine the most effective role(s) for SAFE.
SAFE African Penguin needs ‘all hands on deck.’ Every SSP facility, anyone interested in penguins, the entire AZA community—all are welcome to join in saving this species from extinction.
Hero photo credit: ©K. Graham, Dallas Zoo
Dr. Patricia McGill is the program leader, SAFE African penguin and a senior conservation scientist at the National Aviary.