Creating Penguin Colonies

Banner penguin colonies

Banner image by Ross Wanless

African Penguins generally breed on islands where they are safe from terrestrial, mammalian predators. Due to a shift in the distribution of their favoured prey, there is now a mismatch between penguin breeding islands and the fish distribution. Most penguin colonies, which historically were the largest, are on the west coast of South Africa, while the fish have shifted south and eastwards onto the Agulhas Bank. There is a 600 km stretch of coastline between Dyer Island (near Gansbaai) and Port Elizabeth where there are no islands, and therefore no breeding penguins, which effectively splits the South African population in two.

BirdLife South Africa is investigating options for creating new penguin colonies, which will be protected from predators, on the south coast mainland.The aim is to create resilience in the penguin population by increasing the number of colonies (a kind of “insurance policy”) and bridge the gap between the west and east populations. We will also trial techniques to establish penguin colonies as this has only been attempted once before, in Australia for Little Penguins.

New colony map labelled

A map showing the locations of the current African Penguin colonies and the proposed new colony sites.

What we’re doing

Investigations into establishing a new colony began in 2010, but really only got started in 2013 when workshops were held to discuss the desirability and feasibility of establishing new colonies and to identify “ideal” site criteria. We conducted an extensive search of the coastline to identify potential sites and in 2015, decided to focus on two sites to investigate further; De Hoop Nature Reserve and near the Keurbooms River mouth at Plettenberg Bay. Since then we have looked at the feasibility and risk at each of the sites. We have also started monitoring potential penguin predators at each site and the fine-scale abundance of fish in Plettenberg Bay

Image 1 Camera trapImage 2 Gwenith Penry

Image 3 Gwenith Penry

Above Left: One of the camera traps that have been set out at the sites to remotely monitor what potential penguin predators are found there. © Christina Hagen
Above Middle: The echosounder screen that is used to measure the relative fish abundance. © Gwenith Penry
Above Right: Volunteers on a fish abundance survey, recording sightings of seabirds and marine mammals. © Gwenith Penry

Where we’re working

De Hoop Nature Reserve
African Penguins naturally attempted to establish a colony on the eastern edge of the reserve in 2003. The colony grew to about 18 pairs in 2006 before predation by a caracal caused the penguins to abandon the attempt. BirdLife South Africa, with the support of CapeNature (received in October 2017) aims to re-establish the colony and protect it from predators.

Keurbooms peninsula
The Keurbooms peninsula is a long spit of land at the Keurbooms River mouth, with the estuary on one side and the ocean on the other. This is a much larger area that De Hoop and could potentially hold larger numbers of penguins. Management of the site will be made easier because it is easier to access but also more complex because of the proximity of the town. We are still investigating the feasibility of this site and conducting a thorough risk assessment.
At this site we are working with the Nature’s Valley Trust and BirdLife Plettenberg Bay.

How the colonies will be established
There are two potential options for establishing the colony: passive attraction and active translocation. For both options, the site needs to be protected from terrestrial predators by installing a predator-proof fence and other predator deterrent measures. The site also should look and sound like an established colony. To do this, decoys, call playback and mirrors will be used to give the illusion of penguins using the colony. Nest boxes will be installed to create additional breeding habitat for the penguins. For passive attraction, this is all that is required. This option appears to be more suitable for the De Hoop site, penguins attempted to breed there in the past. Active management is more likely to be used at the Plettenberg Bay site, if approval is granted. Penguin chicks and/or juveniles will be released at the site over a number of years. As penguins start breeding at 3 or 4 years of age it will take a few years before any return to breed. The source of released birds has not yet been decided but will likely include wild chicks that were abandoned by their parents and hand reared.

Image 4 Hara WoltzImage 5 Adri Meyer

Above Left: Australasian Gannet decoys that were used to re-establish a colony on the north island of New Zealand. © Hara Woltz
Above Right: An example of a previous design of artificial burrow used as nests at penguin breeding colonies. New designs are being developed that are more thermally consistent. © Adri Meyer