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.

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

The decoy colony ready for deployment in the field.
A portion of the new colony site at De Hoop Nature Reserve.

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 more than 20 pairs in 2006 before predation by a caracal caused the penguins to abandon the attempt. BirdLife South Africa, with the support of CapeNature, aims to re-establish the colony and protect it from predators.
After a lengthy process of ensuring the correct management plan was in place, work started on site in October 2018. A predator-proof fence was constructed to prevent access by predators such as leopard, caracal, mongoose, genet and baboons.
To get penguins to adopt the site, we are engaging in a little trickery. Because penguins breed in colonies they are less likely to adopt a new site with no penguins already breeding there. To make it look and sound like an existing colony we have put in place life-like penguin decoys and speakers playing penguin calls. These measures aim to attract in young penguins prospecting for breeding sites. Penguins are regularly seen in the waters around De Hoop so it is hoped that the lure of a new breeding site in an area with abundant food will be successful.
If after one year, penguins have not shown interest in the site, we will begin the process of translocation- moving penguins to the new site.

Plettenberg Bay
Nature’s Valley Trust and BirdLife Plettenberg Bay identified Keurbooms peninsula in Plettenberg Bay as a potential site. BirdLife South Africa is working with these two organisations and CapeNature to look at the feasibility of this site and conducting a thorough risk assessment. The 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. However there are more complex management issues surrounding the site, so we are still in the initial phases of the process. We have started monitoring potential penguin predators on the peninsula and have conducted surveys of the abundance of fish in Plettenberg Bay.

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