A project is under way to lure penguins to De Hoop Nature Reserve in a bid to establish a breeding colony for the endangered species. Picture: Adam Welz
To save African penguins from extinction, conservationists have some novel tricks up their sleeves: using decoys and playing calls on speakers to convince the imperilled seabirds to make De Hoop Nature Reserve their new home.

This is part of a bold, ambitious plan hatched by BirdLife South Africa and CapeNature to create new mainland colonies as an “insurance policy” for the endangered species.

“The idea of creating new colonies has been discussed and planned for a number of years, but it is closer to becoming a reality with work starting on the ground at De Hoop,” BirdLife SA and CapeNature revealed this week.

The groundbreaking project, which has never been attempted before for African penguins, will use “passive attraction” techniques such as model penguins - there are 23 so far - and call playback speakers to convince the penguins there are already birds breeding at the reserve in the Overberg.

“The idea behind the ‘passive attraction’ is to make the site look and sound like an existing colony,” says Christina Hagen, Pamela Isdell Fellow of penguin conservation at BirdLife SA, who is leading the pioneering project.

“Seabirds, being colonial breeders, don’t like to be first adopters of anything, so making it look like it is already a breeding colony will make it more likely to attract real penguins.”

This will start within a few weeks.

“These methods have been used successfully elsewhere in the world for establishing colonies of other seabirds, including Atlantic puffins and Austra- lasian gannets.”

African penguins need all the help they can get. In the past 60 years, their numbers have plunged dramatically “with little signs of slowing despite the best efforts of many stakeholders”.

On the West Coast, populations have been hit the hardest, suffering a more than 60% decline in 20 years, largely driven by decreases in the availability of prey: sardine and anchovy.

Since the mid-1990s, stocks of fish, once abundant on the West Coast, have shifted south and eastwards, away from former penguin breeding strongholds, to being more abundant on the south coast and Agulhas Bank.

“This means penguins breeding on the West Coast need to swim further to find food,” says Hagen. “We aren’t sure why the fish distribution has shifted, but it is likely to be due to a combination of changing sea temperatures (affecting spawning) and localised fishing pressure on the West Coast.”

Sardine and anchovy are also the target of a commercial fishing industry, which is the largest by volume in South Africa.

Hagen says not having safe breeding sites close to fish stocks means penguins cannot follow the changing distribution of fish and they continue to decline. “They struggle to find enough food to feed their chicks - and survive. By helping the penguins to colonise new areas previously un- available to them, we hope to increase their population and decrease the risk to any one colony.”

Breeding on the mainland is risky as there is increased predation from animals such as leopard, caracal and mongoose. “Being unable to fly, penguins are particularly vulnerable.”

In the mid-2000s, penguins naturally attempted to establish a colony at the eastern edge of De Hoop not frequented by the public, but predation by a leopard caused them to abandon the site.

“This natural colonisation attempt, supplemented with evidence that there are adequate food resources in the area, provided some of the impetus to choose this site.”

Re-establishing the colony is likely to take several years, with no guarantee of success.

“Because this site was used previously and we know from tracking studies and observations by CapeNature patrols that penguins forage in the waters around De Hoop, we think there is every chance of success.”

The life history of the penguin makes such a project difficult as the seabirds “stay faithful” to their natal colony and take three to five years before they start breeding.

“People make it difficult because establishing colonies hasn’t been done before so there’s a lack of knowledge of how to do it and understandable caution and risk aversion that comes with dealing with an endangered species.”

Hagen says setting up the predator-proof fence and monitoring the site has been difficult.

“The next hurdle will be getting the penguins to come breed at the site.”

If after a year passive attraction techniques are unsuccessful, work to physically translocate them will start. “If we start translocating, we will move fledglings, young birds ready to leave the nest and fend for themselves.”

These could be chicks abandoned at existing colonies or removed for their own safety from nests in residential gardens in Simon’s Town and Betty’s Bay.

Any released at De Hoop as fledglings will take about three to five years to return. “The minimum time to establish the colony is one to three years, but it could take longer.”

BirdLife SA and CapeNature have identified another suitable colony site at Plettenberg Bay, near the Keurbooms River. CapeNature chief executive Dr Razeena Omar says the organisation is committed to supporting and contributing to ecologically sustainable projects “aimed at ensuring the long-term survival of the African penguin in the wild”.

BirdLife SA, says Hagen, is working with the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries and the fishing industry to ensure quotas are set in a way that better takes into account the needs of penguins and the ecosystem.

It is also collaborating with the Department of Environmental Affairs, CapeNature, SANParks and academic institutions on a large-scale experiment to investigate the effect of closing a 20km radius around penguin colonies to fishing.

As this is the only species of penguin found in Africa, South Africans have a responsibility to help to protect it, says Hagen. “Humans have caused most of the problems facing the penguins so that adds to our responsibility to protect them.

“Seabirds, penguins in particular, are good indicators of the health of our oceans as they respond quickly to anything wrong.

“The fact that penguins are in trouble means the ecosystem they depend on is also struggling.”

Saturday Star