The African penguin is only found on the southern African coast. The endemic population is at an historic low with the numbers of breeding pairs on southern African islands down to 26000 pairs from an estimated 121 000 breeding pairs in 1956. Over the last three generations, there has been a 50% overall decrease in breeding pairs. Recently, the rate of decline increased from about 1.44 % in 2006 to 2.34% in 2010. The endangered status of these charismatic seabirds, is fast moving from vulnerable to threatened on the IUCN red list.
There are many reasons for the decline of penguins generally. Historically, passing sailors raided islands to kill penguins and seals for lamp-oil. Penguin meat was never popular but the eggs were favoured. It was only in the 1960’s, that penguin egg collection was eventually banned. Guano, or the penguins droppings, used to be scraped from the islands to be used as an agricultural fertilizer. This was devastating to the penguins breeding efforts as they used to burrow into these huge mounds of guano to make their nests which afforded them protection from the sun. Nowadays, parents have to leave their barren nest sites to cool off in the sea, leaving the eggs to the mercy of the sun and kelp gulls that enjoy eating the eggs and the young chicks. Oil spills at sea have also had a major impact on the southern African population as when penguins are polluted with oil, they cannot hunt, they lose their insulation from the cold sea and die of hyperthermia. There is also a range of diseases that affect the penguins, from avian malaria to bird flu and tick bite fever.
The islands in Algoa Bay, St Croix and Bird Islands, are home to about 45% of the global population. While pilchard and anchovy stocks have been overfished on the West Coast, with the consequence of the penguin population there starving, the South Coast still has readily available stocks. 50|50 looks at a unique experiment that deals with proclaiming a marine protected area of 20 kilometers around St Croix Island, with its aim to stop fishing in the area and give breeding penguins a chance to get food back to their chicks. When fishing is allowed in the area, penguins have to travel great distances to eat and bring back food for their young. The further the distance, the less there is to regurgitate for their chicks which then starve.
Unlike Algoa Bay where the penguins live on just two islands, the West and Southwest coasts have at least 8 islands which are home to varying numbers of penguins and it is here where some of the most dramatic drops in the penguin populations have taken place. Penguins are already locally extinct on Lambert’s Bay Island, and on most of Namibia’s islands. The Western Cape also has at least three mainland colonies of penguins and so, by far, the majority of the African penguin population. The decline and potential extinction of this endemic African seabird, is one of the most important conservation issues we face at present, as important as the rhino poaching issue. According to SANParks, every penguin is sacred, each bird must be protected at all costs.
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