It is almost time for African Penguin Awareness Day. If you love watching these smart-looking birds in their ‘tuxedos’, find out how you can keep them safe. By Arnold Ras
On 17 October hundreds of penguin lovers will flock to Boulders Penguin Colony in Table Mountain National Park (TMNP) for African Penguin Awareness Day. It’s an opportunity to celebrate these endangered sea birds and raise awareness about their conservation and future. And with an estimated 18,000 breeding pairs left worldwide, the African penguin needs our help. Wild headed to Simon’s Town to pay the feathery waddlers a visit.
“Penguins are marine indicator species worldwide. When penguin numbers decline, you have to ask yourself the question: What is happening in our oceans?” says Monique Ruthenberg, TMNP Section Ranger: Simon’s Town at Boulders. She strongly believes that responsible tourism and the conservation of the African penguin go hand in hand.
African penguins live in colonies on 24 islands between Namibia and Algoa Bay near Port Elizabeth. In South Africa there are only two land-based penguin colonies: Boulders and Stony Point Penguin Colony in Betty’s Bay.
The first penguins arrived at Boulders in 1983 and the first pair started mating in 1985. “Numbers increased exponentially in the late ’80s and mid-’90s. As penguin numbers on West Coast islands decreased, ours increased. During this time commercial fishing in False Bay was also halted – increased fish supplies meant increased food meant better environments for penguins. When fish stocks move, one immediately sees an increase or decrease in penguin numbers. To this day the correlation remains the same.”
In 2005, Boulders had a total of 3,900 penguins – the highest number yet, says Monique. “During the three to four years that followed the colony decreased by approximately 30%. This was worrying, but remember that during that same time populations on some islands dropped with up to 80%. Since 2011, numbers at Boulders have started to stabilise. We still haven’t reached our peak like in 2005, but we are getting there!” she adds.
Today about 3,100 penguins roam this area that forms part of TMNP’s Marine Protected Area. But how on earth do you count the residents of a penguin colony? “You count the active nests and this is called a population trend analysis. When there are for example 900 active nests, you multiply that with a ratio of 3.2. Two adults and 1.2 offspring, which is based on the average survival rate.”
According to Monique, Boulders is an ideal space for a penguin colony. “Here’s plenty of fish stock. Also, penguins have specific criteria for building nests. At Boulders there’s close access to the sea, which is access to food; there’s shade and shelter; and the area offers guaranteed protection, seeing that the coastline here cannot be developed any further.”
Make sure your pets are kept in an enclosed environment. They should be walked on a leash and be trained to obey their owner’s commands. – Monique Ruthenberg
Responsible pet owners
Unfortunately, a total of 30 penguins were killed between August and September alone due to domestic dog and cat attacks. “One of the risks of a penguin colony in a residential area is pets. As SANParks we provide protection for the birds in the form of penguin-proof fencing and active ranger patrols, but people should take extra care when residing close to an endangered species. Make sure your pets are kept in an enclosed environment. They should be walked on a leash and be trained to obey their owner’s commands. It’s a case of being aware of your surroundings – be considerate not only to your neighbours, but also the animals. All free-running animals should be reported to the authorities, who can try to locate the owners and return them to their properties before any incidents occur.”
Injured or oiled
SANCCOB (Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds) fulfils the role of SA’s vet for African penguins and other seabirds. “When we receive a penguin that has been harmed in any way, initial stabilisation is immediately performed. The bird will be given a hydrating fluid called Darrow’s solution to provide enough energy for the trip to SANCCOB where the injured penguin undergoes a lengthy check-up process. Because penguins are wild animals, they are not used to being handled and their stress levels can increase drastically. Boulders’ staff are trained by specialists at SANCCOB to minimise disturbance and maximise the effect of treatment. Strict protocol is followed at all times,” Monique explains.
Monique says when tourists and visitors to Boulders know better, they do better:
- Stay on the three boardwalks at all times. “Jumping over these boardwalks to get closer to the birds can result – directly or indirectly – in a penguin’s death. Directly when someone physically hurts a bird, or indirectly, chasing a penguin from its nest. The minute an adult bird leaves a nest, the eggs or chicks are vulnerable to predators like kelp gulls, mongooses or genets.”
- Moulting season, which happens once a year, is a critical time. “Before moulting season, when adult penguins shed their feathers to grow new ones, they have to gain weight for more energy. This surplus energy will be used to grow new feathers. If this extra energy has to be used to flee or protect themselves from visitors posing a threat, the bird may not have enough energy to complete the moulting process. Not enough feathers means the bird can’t swim and consequently can’t hunt for food, but the penguin can also die due to hypothermia, drowning or sunstroke.”
- Penguins bite! “Although the penguins are in a sense used to curious visitors and clicking cameras, they know they are safe as long as visitors remain on the boardwalks. Remember to never try to touch or feed the penguins.”
Sightings of any injured or sick penguins should immediately be reported: SANCCOB (+27 (0) 21 557 6155), SANParks (+27 (0) 21 786 2329) or contact +27 (0) 861 106 417 for any other general emergencies.