File picture: Jason Boud

Cape Town - Permanent or temporary exclusion zones around African penguin breeding islands – including for fishing vessels – are among a raft of proposed conservation measures aimed at preventing the iconic species from possible extinction.

Other measures include looking at ways of protecting penguins at Burghers Walk, east of the Boulders penguin colony, in Simon’s Town; managing penguins’ natural predators such as Cape fur seals and kelp gulls, including possible culling; improved monitoring for oil pollution that affects penguins through increased aerial patrols; stopping the international trade in wild-caught penguins; and a capture, raise and release programme for penguin chicks that are unlikely to survive without intervention.

They are among measures outlined in a 65-page draft African Penguin Biodiversity Management Plan gazetted yesterday by Environmental Affairs Minister Edna Molewa. There is a 30-day comment period.

The African penguin, formerly known as the jackass penguin, was SA’s most abundant seabird in the early 20th century. However, its numbers have crashed so severely that its Red List status is given as “endangered”.

Ornithologists believe the population may have been as high as one million breeding pairs in the 1920s, but that dropped to 147 000 pairs in 1956/57, 75 000 pairs in 1978, 63 000 pairs in 2001 and just 25 000 pairs in 2009. The present population is only about 2.5 percent of its historical level.

The bird has been assigned its endangered status because the breeding population has decreased by 50 percent in the three most recent generations.

The species is endemic to southern African, occurring only between Algoa Bay in the east and central Namibia.

The greatest current threat to the African penguin is probably the lack of prey, mainly sardines and anchovies, that appear to have shifted significantly eastwards in recent years. But oiling through pollution – the Treasure oil spill in June 2000 affected 40 percent of the total population – the removal of guano from islands (that penguins burrow in to make nests) and predation by Cape fur seals, kelp gulls and also by alien invasive species are other major problems.

The draft biodiversity management plan, issued under the National Environmental Management: Biodiversity Act, emerged from a major planning workshop held in Arniston in October 2010, hosted by the national Department of Environmental Affairs and CapeNature.

Other measures in the plan include:

l Investigating and monitoring the possible impact of fishing near penguin colonies, with an island (fishing) closure feasibility study under way and to be concluded by 2014.

l Promoting and enforcing the Southern SA Special Waters Area, declared under the MARPOL Convention for the prevention of pollution by ships.

l Building a database of oiled feathers for oil fingerprinting analysis.

l Investigating and evaluating the efficacy of air restrictions over breeding colonies.

l Ensuring the protected-area status of all localities that have African penguin breeding colonies.

l Establishing an African penguin stud book for all penguins in captivity.

l To comment, write to Humbulani Mafumo by e-mail at [email protected] - Cape Argus