Cape Town - The discovery of 65 dead African penguins, believed to have been attacked by a swarm of Cape honey bees inside the Boulders African penguin colony in Simon’s Town, has come as a blow to conservationists.
Despite a preliminary investigation into the incident which showed that the penguins died after being stung by the bees, a team of specialist veterinarians and advisers from the South African National Parks (SANParks), the City and the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (Sanccob) will continue to probe the deaths to rule out any other causes.
SANParks spokesperson Lauren Clayton said: “On Friday morning, September 17, 63 African penguins were found dead inside the Boulders African penguin colony in Simon’s Town. Another dead penguin was also found on Fish Hoek beach on Saturday.
“We believe that the deaths occurred suddenly sometime between Thursday afternoon and Friday morning. SANParks officials, expert advisers from the City, and veterinarians from Sanccob have been investigating the tragic incident.
“A preliminary investigation suggests that the penguins died because of being stung by a swarm of Cape honey bees, and no external physical injuries were observed on any of the birds. The team will continue their investigation to rule out any other potential causes,” said Clayton.
Sanccob veterinarian David Roberts said that while it was unusual for the penguins to mix with the Cape honey bees, it's not unusual for the bees to be defensive if they felt under threat.
Roberts said there might have been a disturbance in Simon’s Town or garden in the area that led to the bees reacting in the manner they did and attacking the penguins.
He said: “There has never been an incident such as this one so it’s not a usual occurrence. While the Cape honey bees are indigenous to the area because of the fynbos, the penguins and bees do not interact at all. Something must have happened to trigger such a response from the bees and lead to this tragedy.
“We believe the birds died from the toxins derived from the bee stings because birds are not like other mammals and are more susceptible to the poison. Some of the birds had more than 20 stings on their bodies, which caused massive organ failure.
“The penguins were probably stung all at the same time because most of them were found in the same area, however some were found a little bit later in different areas.”
Roberts said that following the incident penguin rangers have been keeping an eye out for the penguins and also conducted a thorough check-up of the remaining penguin colony to ensure that there aren’t any injured birds.
“This was such a tragedy. The African penguins are in danger of being extinct, that is why this is such a tragedy. To lose 63 adult, healthy penguins like this is terrible because every penguin counts at this point. This was a major blow to the colony,” said Roberts.
SANParks marine biologist Dr Alison Kock said the organisation was grateful to its conservation partners, who came on board to respond to the situation timeously.
She said: “We are grateful to all our conservation partners, especially Sanccob and the City of Cape Town, for assisting us in investigating this unusual event. No more dead African penguins were found on site today, and we will continue to monitor the situation."