Tommy Trenchard spends time with the conservationists working hard to protect South Africa’s last penguins
Words and images by Tommy Trenchard and Aurélie Marrier d’Unienville
On a breezy summer day at the southern tip of Africa, David Roberts places the end of his stethoscope gently against the beating chest of his latest patient. Listening for a moment, he nods in apparent satisfaction before moving over to inspect the patient’s feet, one of which is wrapped in several layers of thick, red gauze. He carefully unwraps the dressing and inspects the foot before gently applying a fresh bandage. The patient, a 50-centimetre-tall juvenile African penguin, squirms uncomfortably and flaps its tiny wings in a futile effort to break free.
Roberts knows that the stakes are high. Africa’s penguin numbers have dropped so low that each and every bird he manages to nurse back to health could have a tangible impact on the species’ chances of survival. In barely 100 years, the African penguin population has plunged from more than a million to barely 10,000 breeding pairs, and that number is diminishing every year. In 2010, the species was declared endangered by the IUCN, meaning that it has a ‘very high risk of extinction’. And scientists now predict that it could be ‘functionally extinct’ in the wild off South Africa’s Atlantic coast within the next 15 years.
‘In a perfect world, we wouldn’t have to interfere when something gets attacked by a predator,’ Roberts says, referring to his current patient, whose infected foot is the result of a seal-inflicted wound. ‘But if we can help a strong bird that’s adapted to the wild, to give it a second chance, that makes a difference when there are so few around.’
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Roberts works for the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB), a non-profit based in Cape Town. SANCCOB takes in all manner of seabirds, from gannets to giant white pelicans, but it’s best known for its leading role in the fight to save the African penguin. The facility rehabilitates and releases a steady stream of penguins each year, as well as taking in hundreds of eggs, which are hatched in incubators, with the chicks then hand-reared until they’re strong enough to fend for themselves in the wild. ‘There’s a big problem with overfishing and lack of fish stocks, so a lot of the [medical] complaints I see are related to that,’ says Roberts, adding that the western side of the Cape Peninsula had been particularly hard hit.
In a recent study, researchers put satellite trackers on more than 50 young penguins. The results showed the penguins following environmental cues to areas that were once rich in fish, only to find them barren. Many of these birds now end up being brought into SANCCOB after washing ashore weak and emaciated farther up the coast.
The lack of prey species, particularly sardines, is disastrous for the penguins, Roberts adds. It weakens the immune system, leaving them vulnerable to diseases such as aspergillus and avian malaria; it leads to the growth of poor quality, non-waterproof feathers that can’t withstand the frigid water temperatures off the Cape; it makes parent birds more likely to abandon their nests; and it blocks them from completing the annual moult – the two-week period when the penguins must stay on dry land while their old, worn-out feathers are replaced by new ones. If they haven’t been able to fatten up sufficiently beforehand, they can be forced to return to hunting before the new feathers have grown through.
For more than a decade, conservation groups have been lobbying the government to restrict purse-seine fishing from around the seven largest surviving penguin colonies in an effort to increase the availability of sardines, the penguins’ most important food source. But faced with intense resistance from the country’s small pelagic fishing fleet, these measures have not yet been taken.
‘We have to be so sure of ourselves before we make recommendations that could have far-reaching consequences for not only the fishing industry, but for many fishing communities and coastal towns that rely on these fisheries,’ says Janet Coetzee, the vice-chair of the Small Pelagic Scientific Working Group, the primary advisory body within South Africa’s fisheries department responsible for advising the minister on the management of the fishery.
‘It’s demoralising,’ says Lauren Waller, a seabird scientist and long-term advocate for imposing the fishing restrictions. ‘There are data that show that closing the islands [to fishing] is beneficial not only to penguins, but to all the other seabird species. The decisions need to be made now to give them the time to recover.’
Roberts and his colleagues at SANCCOB are seeing the results of the sardine shortage first hand. And they aren’t the only ones. All along the South African coast, seabird sanctuaries have been witnessing similar scenes.
‘The penguins are the canary in the coalmine,’ says Trudi Malan, a senior bird rehabilitator at the African Penguin and Seabird Sanctuary (APSS) in the town of Gansbaai, two hours east of Cape Town. ‘They’ve been sounding alarm bells, but nobody’s really been paying attention.’
The African penguin is what’s known as an ‘indicator species’ – a predator, high up in the food chain and thus sensitive to its environment, whose fortunes reflect the wider health of the ecosystem. Malan says the rapid decline of the species in recent decades can tell us a lot about the worsening state of its habitat, in what was once one of the world’s richest marine environments.
Most seabird scientists agree that dwindling sardine stocks pose the greatest threat to the survival of the species. Yet it’s far from the only one. Ever since Vasco da Gama docked in the Cape on his way to India in 1497, giving us the first written reference to the species, the relationship between humans and penguins has been fraught. Initially, the birds were exploited for their meat, feathers and fat, then, later, disastrously, for their eggs. According to official records, in just a 30-year period around the turn of the 20th century, some 13 million were taken for human consumption.
Next came the guano strippers. Layers of guano (broken down penguin droppings) several metres thick, were removed from the colonies to be used as fertiliser, depriving the birds of critical burrow-digging material and forcing them to lay their eggs in the open, exposed to predation and the effects of the weather.
After these two practices were eventually outlawed, other threats emerged. Climate change is one. Parenting penguins are getting so hot on their nests they’re forced to cool off in the sea, leaving their chicks unprotected, conservationists say. And studies suggest climatic changes are disrupting their breeding and moulting seasons, as well as having a negative impact on the local ocean currents. Oil spills and plastic pollution also take their toll. A single spill in 2000 affected some 40,000 birds, triggering a huge rescue effort. And, driven from their island colonies to the mainland in search of richer hunting, attacks by land animals and even vehicle strikes have become a problem.
‘African penguin numbers are where they are because of direct human intervention,’ says Malan. ‘We’ve really messed up. How does any species live through having thirty million eggs removed?’ Malan and her colleagues at the APSS are responsible for bolstering the penguin population on Dyer Island, a barren strip of rock and sand, off limits to the general public, that’s home to thousands of seabirds including several small groups of penguins. In photos from the early 1900s, the island is so thickly covered in penguins you can hardly see the beach; today, scarcely 1,000 pairs remain.
On a visit to the island I see clusters of penguins huddled together nervously along the rocky shore as flocks of terns, gulls and cormorants wheel in a cerulean sky above. In the interior of the island lie dozens of small, arched nesting boxes, placed there by conservationists in an effort to improve chick survival rates – without guano to burrow into, penguins’ eggs and chicks left in the open become easy prey for kelp gulls.
Beyond the nesting boxes, a team from the APSS scours the shoreline for vulnerable penguins. They regularly launch rescue missions to the island, looking for sick adults or underweight chicks to bring back to the sanctuary. With barely a third of African penguin chicks now surviving their first year in the wild, and even fewer reaching sexual maturity, bolstering the chick population in sanctuaries is seen as a key intervention.
As the APSS team approaches the first group of penguins, the birds make a desperate, clumsy dash for the waves, swimming out to a safe distance before turning to watch. But one individual lags behind, thrashing wildly in the shallows, one of its wings seemingly immobile. Xolani Lawo, the APSS’s designated ‘first responder’, wades out into the crystalline water and grabs it. The bird has a greenish hue around the corners of its mouth and is too weak to stand.
Lawo recognises the disease as ‘island sickness’, a condition thought to be caused by pools of stagnant, algae-choked water heated until fetid by the sun. Until recently, the disease was unknown, but since 2015, it has become a serious problem during the hot summer months. Lawo and a colleague place the bird carefully in a black plastic crate and load it into a small motorboat moored at the jetty. They then load a second crate, this one containing four dangerously underweight chicks, before casting off the ropes and starting back over the choppy waters of the bay towards Gansbaai.
Back at the sanctuary, Lawo and Malan use a syringe to administer a mixture of activated charcoal and rehydration salts to the bird with island sickness, a remedy they’ve used often in the past. ‘We found him just in time,’ says Lawo, who believes the bird has a good chance of survival.
After dealing with the sick penguin and two others in the intensive care unit, Lawo and Malan switch to feeding duty. Like SANCCOB, the APSS receives a steady stream of malnourished birds and feeding them takes up hours of the day. One by one, they weigh a procession of chicks and adolescent penguins – known as ‘blues’ for their blueish, metallic colouration – on a set of digital scales before hand-feeding them each a specific number of sardines. With intensive support, constant monitoring, good food and a steady supply of vitamin supplements, most of the penguins admitted to the APSS are ready for release again within a few weeks. Yet here, as at other sanctuaries along the coast, there’s a sense of frustration, bordering on despondency, at pouring so much effort into saving penguins only to release them into an ecosystem that no longer seems able to support them.
‘As hard as we and the other centres try, it doesn’t seem to have an impact,’ says Shimune Smit, the manager of the Seabird and Penguin Rescue Center in the sleepy fishing town of Mossel Bay. Smit and her team say penguins have been washing ashore in increasingly poor condition. ‘They’re so skinny you can see their backbones, you can see their whole skeleton, and you’re just thinking, “When was the last time you ate?”,’ says Smit. ‘We’re basically going to become a zoo, not a rehab center, as there won’t be any wild penguins to rehabilitate any more.’
Alongside the work being done by the sanctuaries, several other initiatives are underway to try to stem the ongoing decline in numbers. Colonies have been fenced off from predators; ever-more sophisticated nesting boxes are being developed; and conservation groups continue their battle with the fishing industry to impose no-take zones around the penguins’ main breeding islands. One ambitious project, spearheaded by Birdlife South Africa, aims to create a whole new penguin colony in a nature reserve between Cape Town and Gansbaai, an area where fish stocks have held up better than elsewhere. To encourage the birds to breed there, a series of concrete ‘decoy’ penguins have been installed, along with speakers that play penguin calls.
Meanwhile, at SANCCOB’s hatchery, staff are collecting and hand-rearing ever greater numbers of eggs. For Melissa Cadman, a young conservationist in charge of the chick-rearing unit, each one successfully reared to maturity and released into the wild is a major victory. No expense is spared in giving the hatchlings the best possible chance of survival. The chicks are fed a finely honed diet that starts with warmed-up sardine smoothie administered through a tube and then progresses to fillets and eventually whole sardines. They receive boosts of electrolytes and nutritional supplements, and when they get sick, Roberts is on hand to nurse them back to health.
For Roberts, the work of treating sick, injured or malnourished penguins never stops. But despite the grim prognosis for the species, he hasn’t lost hope. ‘Action is needed very urgently,’ he says, once the last of the day’s patients has been returned to the intensive care unit for the night. ‘But it’s amazing how well the oceans can recover when they’re given the time and protection they need.