South Africa is well-known for its Big Five safari sightings of lion, elephant, rhino, leopard and buffalo. A lesser-known fact is that it is also home to the Marine Big Five – the Common Dolphin, Cape Fur Seal, African Penguin, Great White Shark and the Southern Right Whale. What is also not well known to tourists eager to spot all five on a marine boat tour is that populations of four of the big five are booming – sadly the odd one out is the African Penguin.
We have previously reported on how hunting bans have resulted in rising whale populationsand both sharks and seals have benefitted from similar protection. The African Penguin, however, has seen its population dwindle to less than 10% of their numbers 100 years ago. The birds breed along the coastline of Namibia and South Africa, mostly on offshore locations such as the tourist hot spot of Robben Island. There are two well-known land based colonies in South Africa at Betty’s Bay and Boulders Beach. The latter is a particular highlight for Cape Peninsula tours and in particular for the guests at Boulders Beach Lodge, who encounter the birds every morning and often have to remove them from under their cars before setting off for a day’s sightseeing.
Take ear plugs with you if want a lie in, as the penguins get up early and let you know they are around. They are also known as the Jackass Penguin due to the harsh braying sound they make, which is reminiscent of a donkey, so be prepared.
Living in close proximity to humans can be both a blessing and a challenge for the penguins. Much of their historic decline has been due to people collecting their eggs for food and removing their droppings or ‘guano’ for use as fertiliser. The guano deposits that build up over the years provide sites for birds to burrow into during nesting season. With the guano removed, the strong African sun and numerous land based predators are often too much for both the eggs and the young hatchlings. At many locations around the South African coast you will now notice the fibre glass penguin homes, which have been rolled out as part of theFaces of Need project to replace the guano nesting sites. For a small fee of ZAR 400 you too can own a prime seafront residence – as long as you are amenable to a rent free lodger.
When real environmental disaster strikes, the penguins find that the local population can truly be their best friends. On 23 June 2000, the MV Treasure sank off Table Bay releasing 1,300 tonnes of crude oil. About 19,000 penguins were caught up in the spill, most becoming seriously oiled. A similar number had to be evacuated from the surrounding islands before the slick reached them. Over 12,000 volunteers from the local area, including many tourists, gave their time to collect and clean the affected birds with the result that an incredible 91% of affected birds survived and were later released. The response remains the world’s largest animal rescue effort in history.
Sadly, despite the respect and love for the birds from locals and visitors, their numbers continue to decline further. Concerns have ranged from the impact of global warming to the increased presence of predators, such as feral cats. It seems however that the impact of commercial fisheries is the biggest problem for the penguins. The birds are forced further out to sea in order to locate their prey and with the more nutritious fish being extensively caught by fishermen, the birds are returning to shore exhausted and with an ever dwindling food supply.
Many organisations, such as SANCCOB, Dyer Island Conservation Trust, and the Department of Environmentaare working constantly to halt the decline of the African Penguin. Methods include hand-rearing and releasing abandoned chicks, setting up artificial nests, and proclaiming marine reserves, where fishing is prohibited. One of the best times to visit the Boulders colony is during Simon’s Town Penguin Festival, which takes place every year in October. Here visitors can see the young birds being released on the beach following their rehabilitation. If you would like to get involved further, why not even consider Adopting A Penguin.
The African Penguin lives nowhere else in the world and is often one of the highlights of a visit to Cape Town. Hopefully they will still be here for many years to come, but for the moment their future is hanging in the balance.