Working for birds in Africa

Our penguins get a champion

Date posted: 
Thursday, July 2, 2009

African Penguins have been sliding towards extinction since industrial fishing started around the Cape. The last four years have seen a population crash. BirdLife South Africa has found someone to champion their cause.

Conservationists fear that if nothing is done soon, the iconic African Penguin is in danger of becoming extinct. Oil spills, predation by seals, disease and a few other problems have contributed to the situation. But by far the major culprit is food scarcity, say scientists.

In the 1920s, despite more than a century of sustained persecution, principally from egg collecting and guano scraping, around 1 million pairs of African Penguins Spheniscus demersus bred at Dassen Island, off the West Coast of South Africa. Now the global population is a mere 28,000 pairs. As for Dassen, last year fewer than 6,000 pairs nested. That’s half a per cent of the former numbers. Averaged out over 100 years, this collapse represents a loss of 20 thousand birds per year from just one colony, equivalent to 1,600 birds a week, or more than two birds per hour. This phenomenon is not unique to Dassen Island but is an example of the massive reduction in African Penguin numbers around our coast.

In the past four years, the stocks of sardine and anchovy on the West Coast have collapsed. Stocks along the south coast are doing somewhat better. While fishery managers debate whether it is due to climate change or overfishing, the penguins and other seabirds that depend on the fish are disappearing. Fishing companies find it inconvenient to close operations in Lamberts Bay and move to Mossel Bay, where the healthier sardine stocks are located; the penguins don’t have that option. Dr Rob Crawford, penguin specialist at Marine and Coastal Management, explained: “There are no islands along the South Coast where the penguins can move to. They simply cannot follow the fish the way the boats can”.

In April, at the 2nd International African Penguin Conference, the latest depressing results were presented, and speaker after speaker reported shrinking populations from their respective islands. Dr Ross Wanless, Seabird Division manager for BirdLife South Africa, was there. “I was deeply shocked at the state of the penguin population. The results that were presented at the conference were almost unbelievable, but I couldn’t argue with the numbers”.

Fortunately, BirdLife South Africa has not been idle. Executive Director Mark Anderson put out a call for help a few months ago. “BirdLife International developed their ‘Preventing Extinctions’ programme a few years back, whereby someone could become a ‘Species Champion’, to fund conservation work for an endangered or critically endangered bird species. When I announced that BirdLife South Africa was looking for someone to become the Species Champion for the African Penguin, I got an immediate response, from Dr Roelof van der Merwe, a Trustee of the Charl van der Merwe Trust”.

The Charl van der Merwe Trust asked Dr Wanless to identify interventions that would help turn the species’ fortunes around. Through BirdLife South Africa, the trustees will provide a significant amount of funding to fund collaborative projects, focusing initially on fish stocks and food availability. “If good progress is made after two years, the Trust has dedicated itself to providing additional resources.” explained Dr Wanless.

“This couldn’t have come at a better time” said Prof Peter Ryan of the Percy FitzPatrick Institute at the University of Cape Town, one of the collaborators. “We are at a critical juncture, with the African Penguin population in apparent free-fall. A Species Champion will provide the resources we need to try and rescue the situation”.

Contact: Dr Ross Wanless; +27 21 419 7347 (office); +27 73 675 3267 (mobile); e-mail:

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