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Saving Penguins

Monday, January 25 2016 10:34 AM
By Matt Fouts

The penguins of Dyer Island have decreased from 23,000 breeding pairs in 1979 to 900 pairs today. That’s a decline of over 90%.

While in South Africa recently, Sherri and I were invited to participate in the release of several rescued and rehabilitated African black-footed penguins. They were being released back into the Dyer Island Conservation Area. Our host was Wilfred Chivell, the CEO and Founder of the Dyer Island Conservation Trust and the African Penguin and Seabird Sanctuary (APSS). We were very honored to accompany the South African Minister of Tourism, the Honorable Derek Hanekom, his wife, assistants, and security team on this very special tour.

The release of the penguins back into the wild was a validation of the dedication and efforts put forth by Wilfred Chivell and his dedicated staff. It turned out to be quite an event.  The area in Gansbaai, across from where the penguins were released, was a residential neighborhood. Many of the residents turned up to watch the release as well.

It was an exciting and rewarding event for all who watched or participated in the release.  The penguins wondered out of their cardboard crates onto the beach and into the shallow water. They huddled together swimming around playfully in the shallow water. Eventually, they gained their bearings and slowly headed out to sea.  Their destination was Dyer Island nearly 5 miles away.

It was spectacular to watch them swim like little torpedoes through the waves as they broke on the rocks. They are truly amazing swimmers and at home in the sea. Few people watching left until the penguins were out of site. Hopefully, these penguins will make use of their second chance in life and contribute to the survival of their species.

African penguins play in the shallow water after being rehabilitated.
The penguins begin the 5 mile swim to Dyer Island Conservation Area

Protecting the Penguins

At the beginning of the 19th century African penguins numbered around 4 million birds. By 1910 only 10% of the 4 million penguins remained. Today those numbers are around 50,000.

Reasons for the decline has varied from guano scraping (removing the bird waste) for fertilizer to the collecting of eggs once considered a delicacy in Europe. More recent causes for the decline include over-fishing along with a shift in ocean currents that force the penguins to swim farther offshore in search of food. Also, marine pollution and oil spills (some intentionally created by oil tankers that illegally clean their oil tanks at sea) cover the penguins with oil. This causes hypothermia and drowning.

The Dyer Conservation Trust is combating several of these threats. One initiative, in cooperation with CapeNature, moves to replace the missing guano. With the guano gone, penguins are forced to nest on the rock surface giving them no protection from Kelp Gulls. By placing artificial nests on the islands, the eggs and chicks have sheltered sites to protect them from the elements and predators.

Another was the construction of the state-of-the-art African Penguin and Seabird Sanctuary facility. The APSS facility was opened in February 2015. It houses a research laboratory, veterinary facilities, and numerous holding and rehabilitation pens and pools to house penguins. It is already having an impact rehabilitating oiled, injured, and abandoned birds for eventual release back into the sea. I have not seen a finer facility anywhere.

We were also pleased to learn that the South African government recognizes the serious threats facing the penguins on Dyer Island and elsewhere. The government is supporting the conservation efforts of the Dyer Conservation Trust through the Department of Nature Conservation and the development of eco-tourism through the Ministry of Tourism.



We at Tanganyika Wildlife Park recognize the importance of saving this endangered species.  We have committed more than $250,000 to build a successful breeding program for African penguins as part of our new Children’s Zoo expansion.

You can help too!

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