The African Penguin is the focal bird species for our Overberg Threatened Bird Awareness Project for June 2017.

The African Penguin, Spheniscus demersus, a Southern African breeding endemic, is one of the 17 global penguin species; and the only species whose distribution coincides with the cold, nutrient rich, Benguela Current.

The African Penguin’s breeding range extends from Hollamsbird Island, situated off the coastline of central Namibia, along the South African coastline to Bird Island in Algoa Bay, Eastern Cape coast.  This distribution incorporates 29 islands as well as two land based colonies. Non breeding birds may move as far afield as the coastlines of southern Angola and Kwa-Zulu Natal, while vagrants have been recorded in Gabon and Mozambique.

In the early 1900’s populations estimates on Dassen Island alone placed the population of African Penguin at 1.5 million birds. A hundred years later the Dassen Island population has suffered a decline of more than 90 %, from 1.5 million birds to a mere 175,000 adult birds.  In 1910 the total populations of African Penguin was between 1,5 – 3 million birds, declining to 300 000 in 1956 and further to 70 000 breeding pairs in 1978.  In 2011 the population estimate was approximated at 26 000 pairs, the lowest recorded level.

The decline of this species is due to historic habitat disturbance and transformation in their colonies where guano was depleted due to harvesting for utilization as nutrient rich fertilizers.  The exploitation of penguin eggs as a delicacy in Europe contributed to the decline, with some islands producing records of up to 56,000 eggs harvested for human consumption.  The last record of authorized collection of penguin eggs was in 1967.

Current threats include competition with fisheries for pelagic fish species. This plays a major role in the lower breeding success in the colonies.  Foraging distances have increased from 20 to 70km, or up to 110km per trip. When fish populations are depleted, it poses a major problem for penguins as the is very little reward for them to feed further than 45km from the nest site. If fish resources are too poor they will abandon the current breeding attempt. Kelp Gulls have been known to harass penguins returning from foraging excursions, which then induces regurgitation of their catch.  The gulls also utilize the penguin eggs as a food resource.   Inter species competition with Cape Fur Seals for viable breeding space as well as food resources also pose a threat.  These seals also predate on penguins, displaying interesting feeding behavior by only feeding on the stomach contents of the penguins they catch.

Marine pollution, in the form of oil spill disasters plagues all penguin species. During such a disaster penguins face high risk of mortalities from drowning and starvation including impacts in breeding success.  Some islands colonies are also constantly facing small scale oil spills annually when oil tankers illegally clean out their oil containers into the surrounding ocean.

Conservation efforts to negate the extinction of this species include a recently accepted African Penguin Biodiversity Management Plan.  This aims to prevent the crises facing the African Penguin, which is listed as Vulnerable in the South African Red List, but qualifies for the Endangered categorisation.  The species can be described as being in ‘freefall’ with the combined results of annual counts since 2005 being downwards and some 5 000 – 10 000 pairs disappearing from breeding census figures each year.

Should you wish to assist the Overberg Crane Group with our conservation initiatives please contact Mick D’Alton at donate@bluecrane.org.za or visit our website at www.bluecrane.org.za