From the Desk of Dan Ashe

Invest in the Nest- One Year Later

Exactly one year ago, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) and its members launched a first-of-its kind Kickstarter campaign with a big goal: to help save endangered African penguins from extinction. Our “Invest in the Nest” campaign aimed to raise $150,000 in just 30 days to fund the creation and installation of artificial nests for penguin colonies in South Africa and Namibia. With the help of the zoo and aquarium community and thousands of generous Kickstarter backers from around the world, we surpassed our goal AND our stretch goal, enabling us to invest in more than 2,000 artificial nests. This program is not only helping the penguins, but it is also spreading awareness and education about conservation efforts.

Now, some of those nests are home to African penguins in the wild. This past fall, our team of scientists from Dallas Zoo and partners constructed the first 200 artificial nests for wild colony and durability testing. They’ve installed the nests, in addition to monitoring and security equipment, at two penguin colonies so far. Already, we’re seeing results. Just two weeks after the nests were installed, researchers shared that penguins at Bird Island had laid eggs in 65 percent of the nests and 43 percent of the nests in the Dyer Island colony had eggs. The usage rate of the nests continued to climb as the breeding season progressed.  Almost all of the nests (96%) have been occupied at some point following their installation.

Photo by Kevin Graham of African penguin utilizing nest
Photo by Kevin Graham, Dallas Zoo

As one of 16 species represented by the AZA SAFE: Saving Animals From Extinction program, AZA is “invested” in the future of the African penguin. African penguin populations have declined from more than one million to just 25,000 breeding pairs over the last century, due largely to human activity. The birds naturally nest in guano, but over-harvesting of guano for fertilizer has resulted in only about 27 natural nests left. A lack of nests means a lack of protection for eggs, which are vulnerable to overheating on bare rock in the hot sun and increased predation. Our artificial nests, which are specially designed for temperature control and predator protection and crafted individually by hand, give the penguins a home in which to raise their young.   

What’s next? AZA and partners will continue to collect and analyze the environmental data, and use these findings to further improve nest designs. Our partners plan to build hundreds more nests, and in the long-term, have at least 6,000 artificial nests in penguin colonies to support the next generation of African penguins. But African penguins face multiple threats, all of which still need to be addressed. Through SAFE, AZA and partners are collaborating on additional research projects, including individual identification, health monitoring, disaster response, public engagement, and the African penguin Species Survival Plan® (SSP) program.

Saving species from extinction is not a short-term undertaking; it’s a long-term investment. Over time, I have seen our dedicated zoo and aquarium professionals achieve more milestones with the help of their partners and supporters. A special thank you to all of our Kickstarter backers who got us started, and thank you to all who have helped us accomplish so much over the last year. Our plan is for the African penguin to be around for many more years to come, and all of your help is making that possible.

Photo by Kevin Graham of African penguin colony
Photo by Kevin Graham, Dallas Zoo

AZA thanks our program partners, including Dallas Zoo,  Adventure Aquarium, CapeNature,  Dyer Island Conservation Trust, Keramicalia, Owens Coming, Pan-African Association of Zoos & Aquaria (PAAZA), Republic of South African Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA), Robben Island Museum, San Diego Zoo Global, South African National Parks, University of Bristol, University of Cape Town, and University of Exeter.

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