Marine pollution, oil and plastics are driving down African penguin numbers. Picture: Supplied.
Marine pollution, oil and plastics are driving down African penguin numbers. Picture: Supplied.
An African penguin in the ICU unit at Sanccob. Picture: Supplied
An African penguin in the ICU unit at Sanccob. Picture: Supplied
Cape Town - African penguins are at their lowest population numbers in recorded history and have seen an alarming rate of decline in recent years.

Since 2005, South Africa has lost around 70% of its breeding pairs with less than 15500 pairs left in the wild. According to the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA), this is the lowest number ever recorded.

Namibia holds another 5500 breeding pairs, bringing the total world population to between 21000 and 22000 breeding pairs, down from the one to two million estimated at the start of the 20th century.

SA Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (Sanccob) research manager Dr Katta Ludynia said egg and guano harvesting caused the initial decline of the species at the start of the 20th century, followed by the onset of industrial fishing for sardines and anchovies in the 1950s and 1960s.

Numbers increased slightly in the early 2000s, but have since continued to decline due to a lack of food and suitable breeding habitat. “Birds used to burrow into the guano but now often breed exposed to the weather and predators,” Ludynia said.

Penguins’ main predators are kelp gulls, marine and terrestrial predators, especially at the mainland colonies that include caracal and leopard, dogs, cats and mongooses. At sea, seals often predate on birds at certain colonies.

Marine pollution has affected the species, especially during major oil spills such as the Apollo Sea bulk carrier spill in 1996 and the Treasure spill in 2000, but also due to chronic plastic and fishing line entanglements. Disturbance and disease are other threats.

According to Ludynia, there are 28 breeding locations in Namibia and South Africa, with 10 to 11 locations in the Western Cape. Dassen Island, Robben Island, Simon’s Town including Boulders Beach, Stony Point and Dyer Island are the main ones, with between 1000 and 1500 breeding pairs each. Other smaller colonies are mostly located on the islands in Saldanha Bay.

“One of the biggest threats faced by the African penguins is lack of food. They feed mainly on sardine and anchovy. Sardine stocks in 2017 were among the lowest in the last three decades and birds struggle to find sufficient food. Reduced fishing quotas and spatial fishing closures around important breeding colonies of African penguins are urgently needed,” said Ludynia.

In 2013 the DEA gazetted the Biodiversity Management Plan for the African penguin in which threats and actions needed are listed and action points assigned to relevant bodies.

Since then the government, conservation authorities and NGOs have implemented the plan, including better protection against marine pollution, illegal dumping of oil and cleaning of vessels at sea.

“Conservation agencies work hard to better protect the species in the colonies by providing nest boxes, habitat restoration and reduction of disturbance,” said Ludynia.

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Weekend Argus