In 2001, there were 56 000 pairs of African penguins in South Africa. By 2014, there were just 19 000 pairs. This drastic decline has prompted BirdLife South Africa to try something it has never done before to prevent the penguin from going extinct.
Led by Christina Hagen, the organisation wants to establish a new African penguin colony that will help to increase its numbers. The challenge to save the African penguin from extinction is proving to be massive, according to BirdLife South Africa chief executive Mark Anderson. "The penguins need all the help they can get. Establishing new mainland colonies are immensely important management interventions."
Two major populations of the birds remain, made up of numerous colonies in Western Cape between West Coast National Park and Gansbaai, and of colonies in Algoa Bay, Eastern Cape. The problem for conservationists is the 600km gap between the two populations. Hagen said penguins bred more successfully on islands, where there were no terrestrial predators. But because there was no island between Gansbaai and Port Elizabeth, the gap remained. It was for this reason the new colony would have to be built on the mainland.
BirdLife South Africa was still assessing suitable areas to establish the colony. The choice of location will be based on whether there is an abundance of sardines and anchovies in the area; the fish are the penguins' two main sources of food. Hagen said the land had to be good enough for penguins to burrow and make a nest, the area must make it easy to protect the birds from predators such as caracals, leopards and mongooses, and it should not be too close to sources of pollution such as oil.
More can be done
BirdLife South Africa wants to relocate specific birds to the new colony. "We'll be using young birds that have fledged and are ready to go to sea but haven't bred yet," said Hagen. It will also relocate chicks that have been abandoned.
In 2010, the African penguin was listed as endangered by BirdLife International, meaning that it had decreased by over 50% in three penguin generations, or approximately 30 years.
Building a new colony is the most drastic step taken so far. "Trying to create a colony is a big step and it hasn't been done before so people are a bit hesitant to try it," said Hagen. "But we are working with a number of organisations, including the Nature's Valley Trust and the African Penguin Population Reinforcement Working Group to help make it happen."