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.

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, 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.
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.

In 2021, we released 88 penguins at the site. The released penguins were 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. The penguins are released as fledglings as they have not yet chosen a place to breed and 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.

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

Project sponsors

Project partners

 

 

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