Current state of affairs
A global standard for seriously unhealthy populations is when decreases hit 10% of their former (pre-exploitation/decrease) levels. The African Penguin population is currently at about 14% its 1950s level, when the first official census was conducted. In 2010, the African Penguin was 'uplisted' from Vulnerable to Endangered by BirdLife International. It is on a strong, downward population trajectory. About 100 years ago the colony at Dassen Island alone, already subject to huge harvesting pressures and other disturbance, stood at ~1 million pairs. In 2011, around 4 000 pairs bred there. That amounts to a loss of over 10 000 pairs per year! The situation is mirrored at all other colonies: globally there are fewer than 25 000 pairs – essentially the loose change from the estimates of a century ago.
The current global population is just 3% of the estimate from the Dassen Island colony in the 1920s! The South African population is about 19 000 pairs, while Namibia has only about 5 000 pairs.
What's driving this?
In the 1900s, penguins were threatened by egg collecting and guano scraping at their breeding colonies. These activities were stopped in the 1960s, but the penguin populations have continued to decrease. Now penguins are threatened by a myriad of sources from predation by seals (and sharks) to the potential for a catastrophic oil spill to a lack of food. The impact of these threats will only be exacerbated as the penguin population decreases further.
A population decreases when mortality exceeds recruitment. Attempts to increase recruitment of African Penguins have included maintenance and improvement of nesting habitat, and captive rearing and release of orphaned wild chicks. Attempts to decrease mortality include eradicating invasive predators, reducing predation by natural predators (e.g. seals) around colonies, rehabilitation and release of oiled and injured penguins, and disease control. None of these efforts have halted the decreases.
By far the biggest concern is, quite simply, a lack of food. Penguins eat mainly sardines and anchovies, which are also the target of the commercial purse-seine fishing industry. However, the role fishing has played in the decrease is hotly debated. In the mid-1990s the distribution of the sardines and anchovies shifted from the west coast of South Africa to the south coast believed to be due to climate change and high fishing pressure on the west coast. While this shift has almost certainly contributed to the population decrease, the colonies on the south coast, which supposedly should have benefited from the shift, have continued to decrease in numbers.
What are we doing about this?
Significant funding has been received from the African Penguin Species Champion, the Charl van der Merwe Trust, and Pamela Isdell, a patron of the African Penguin to ensure that critical interventions can be made. The projects we are involved with work towards our major goal: incorporating the needs of penguins (and other predators) into fishery management. This is known as the Ecosystem Approach to Fisheries (EAF).
We are working on the following projects:
- Policy level: Fishing quotas are set without taking the distribution of fish into account and this may affect the availability of fish for penguins. We are working with government and fisheries to change the way the fishing quotas are given, so that they take in to account the fact that the distribution of fish is not uniform around the coast.
- Island closures project: Funding researcher, Dr. Lorien Pichegru to examine the effects of banning fishing around penguin breeding islands. Preliminary results show that creating a 20 km fishing exclusion zone around a colony means that penguins don't have to swim as far as before to find food.
- Satellite tracking: Very little is known about where penguins go and what threats they face at sea when they are not breeding. We have attached satellite trackers to penguins to find out where they go during these periods. Fact Sheet - African Penguin Satellite Tracking Research Project (256 kB) or Read more...
- Establishment of a new colony: African Penguins breed mainly on islands where they are safe from terrestrial, mammalian predators. Mainland colonies such as Boulders Beach and Stony Point survive because the towns around them create barriers, restricting predators' access to the colonies. Between Gansbaai and Port Elizabeth there lies 600 kms of coast where there are no islands, and therefore no breeding penguins, effectively splitting the population in two. BirdLife South Africa has received funding from African Penguin patron Pamela Isdell and is investigating options for creating a new penguin colony on the south coast mainland, which will be protected from predators. This colony will represent an 'insurance policy' for the penguin population. If another large oil spill occurs on the west coast or climate change causes the fish distribution to shift again, we could lose large numbers of penguins in these two widely distant population centres. BirdLife South Africa is driving the process of investigating potential sites and methods to use in establishing a new colony.
- Transponder project: Micro-chipping penguins on Robben Island to gather data on survival rates and the effects of flipper bands on the survival of the penguins.
Christina Hagen is the Coastal Seabird Conservation Manager in charge of co-ordinating these projects and works closely with the head of the Seabird Division, Dr. Ross Wanless. In addition to the work on African Penguins, Ross is responsible for working with the BirdLife Africa Partnership Secretariat in Nairobi, coordinating all seabird conservation matters for the continent.
None of the Seabird Conservation work would be possible without the contributions from many people and organisations. The RSPB fund the Global Seabird Programme, including all the BirdLife South Africa Seabird Division staff. Major sponsors in recent years include the Charl van der Merwe Trust, Pamela Isdell, the Plastics Federation of South Africa and the Cape Bird Club. A special word of thanks for the energy, time and support for the Seabird Division from Vernon Head, Chairman of BirdLife South Africa.