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 attempting to establish a penguin colony, 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.

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

Background

The site: De Hoop Nature Reserve

The De Hoop Nature Reserve is about 250 km east of Cape Town. It is one of the largest natural areas managed by CapeNature and the associated Marine Protected Area is one of the largest coastal MPAs in South Africa. 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, with about 100 non-breeding penguins roosting there, before predation by terrestrial predators (likely caracal) caused the penguins to abandon the attempt. BirdLife South Africa, with the support of CapeNature and the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB), aims to re-establish the colony and protect it from predators.

Phase 1: Predator protection and social attraction

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 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.

Phase 2: Penguin translocation

The second phase of the project is to release juvenile penguins at the site. The released penguins are hand-reared at SANCCOB; most hatched from abandoned eggs or chicks rescued from other penguin colonies and reared at the organisation’s Cape Town facility. We need to release fledglings as they have not yet chosen a place to breed. Once an African penguin starts breeding at a colony, they return there year after year. By releasing fledglings, we hoped that they will return to De Hoop Nature Reserve to breed when they are ready to do so in three to six years.

We plan to continue releasing at least 60 young penguins per year until at least 2026, as work on other seabird colony establishment projects has shown that releasing large numbers gives the greatest chance of success.

Latest News

November 2022: Penguins breeding at De Hoop Nature Reserve colony

A penguin nest was found at the colony with two healthy-looking chicks. In addition, to the pair raising chicks, there are around 8 other adults and 6 juvenile penguins moulting at the colony. This is the first time penguins have bred at the colony since 2008.

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August 2022: Adult penguins seen at the colony

During on of the releases in June, adult penguins were found roosting at the colony site, seemingly having been attracted by the speakers playing penguin calls. Since then, at least 7 adult penguins have been seen at the site. Although there are no confirmed breeding attempts yet, some of the penguins appear to have paired up and are scouting out nesting spots. The penguins will be monitored carefully from a distance so as not to disturb them during this sensitive prospecting period.

June 2022: Over 100 penguins released at De Hoop Nature Reserve since 2021

The first juvenile penguins were released at De Hoop Nature Reserve in June 2021. The released penguins come from existing colonies, mostly from CapeNature’s Stony Point Nature Reserve at Betty’s Bay. They were abandoned by their parents as eggs or chicks and subsequently hand reared by SANCCOB, a world-leader in seabird rehabilitation. Since the first release, five other groups of penguins have been released, 148 birds in total. The last three groups have been released after spending the night in a pen on the beach to familiarise them with the area. Once released, they leave the colony site and are expected to spend the next few years at sea, learning how to fend for themselves, and prospecting at different colonies.

June 2021: First penguins released at De Hoop

On 11 June 2021, 30 juvenile African Penguins were released at the De Hoop Nature Reserve. This is the first of many groups of birds that will be released from the site to encourage them to come back to breed when they are ready.

One of the released penguins about to take its first step into the sea. Credit: Alistair McInnes/BirdLife South Africa
Decoys have been deployed at De Hoop Nature Reserve in the hope that African Penguins will be encouraged to try again to establish a colony there. Credit Christina Hagen
Heading out to sea. Credit Christina Hagen/BirdLife South Africa

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Our project is featured in Africa Geographic’s Travel Club. Learn more about the club here.