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South Africa's Penguins on the Rebound!

The African Penguin population is on the increase according to the latest counts made at several penguin colonies around the South African coastline. The African Penguin, Africa's only surviving penguin, breeds only in South Africa and Namibia. South Africa supports 90% of the population, including the four largest colonies: Dassen, St Croix, Robben and Bird islands. Dassen and Robben islands lie off the west coast, north of Cape Town. St Croix and Bird islands are in Algoa Bay, east of Port Elizabeth.

Penguin breeding population

The African Penguin is classified as Vulnerable to Extinction because its population decreased in a dramatic and sustained fashion during the 20th century, from well over 1.5 million adults in 1930 to just 160 000 in the 1990s. Initially, this decrease was due to excessive harvests of penguin eggs. More recently it has been caused by a shortage of food, which has resulted in poor reproductive success, and oiling, which has killed substantial numbers of grown birds. Additionally, Cape Fur Seals have displaced penguins from breeding sites at several colonies.

Breeding populations at South African colonies are surveyed annually. The surveys conducted in 2001 indicate a clear increase in the penguin population, from a low of about 26 000 breeding pairs in 1998 to some 56 000 pairs at present.

Between 2000 and 2001, the South African population increased from 46 000 to 56 000 breeding pairs, with each of the four largest colonies showing substantial growth. At Dassen and Robben islands this growth was not expected because of the loss of 2 000 birds during the Treasure oil spill in June 2000. Additionally, 5 000 birds from these colonies died during the Apollo Sea spill of June 1994.

The recent increase in South Africa's penguins is attributed to good recruitment to the breeding population that in turn results from an increase in the abundance of South Africa's stocks of Sardine and Anchovy, the two most important prey items of African Penguins. The combined biomass of these fish stocks in November 2000 was more than 5 million tons, double the highest biomass recorded since acoustic surveys to estimate their abundance began in 1984. However, feeding conditions have been consistently good since 1997. African Penguins breed for the first time when aged 3-4 years, and the young birds now recruiting to breeding colonies will have hatched during 1997 and 1998.

The Sardine stock has increased steadily since 1984, as a result of careful management of this resource that includes minimizing the catch of young sardine and setting the catch at conservative levels. The Anchovy resource has undergone wide fluctuations in abundance that result from environmental conditions. Careful management of the food resources, a favourable marine environment and the dedicated efforts of the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB) in successfully rehabilitating some 17 000 penguins that were oiled after the Treasure sank a year ago have halted the long downward slide of the African Penguin. However, it will still be some time before its status as Vulnerable will be reassessed, because in terms of criteria stipulated by The World Conservation Union this is based on the population trend over its most recent three generations, which span a period of about 30 years.

Happy pink penguins
Photo Tony van Dalsen
Penguins, pink with happiness, leaving for
Robben Island from Milnerton Beach after
being rehabilitated by SANCCOB.