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Preserving the Penguins


Conservationists Try to Prevent African Penguin Extinction

January 5th 2009

Energy / Environment - Dyer Island Penguins

Millions of African penguins once roamed the beaches along the continent's southern coast. But their population is collapsing and conservationists have begun drastic measures to prevent the species from going extinct. They are installing artificial nests to help the penguins survive. They are even feeding wild penguins by hand.

Dyer Island, about five miles off the southern tip of Africa, is a key breeding site for the African penguin. But a local charter boat captain, Wilfred Chivell, says the penguins need help.

"You can see it's impossible for any bird to make a nest in this area-boulders upon boulder upon boulder," Chivell said.

Over the years, people removed the topsoil from this island because it was rich in bird droppings and made good fertilizer. As a result, penguins can no longer burrow underground to build nests. They must breed in the open, where chicks are often killed by predators or stormy weather.

Chivell has decided to step in. He is installing small fiberglass igloos for the penguins to use as nests. “Once you've placed the nest there, they decorate," Chivell said. "They put a few extra stones and a few feathers and pieces of the natural vegetation here. So they make it nice and homely for themselves."

The need for artificial nests demonstrates why the African penguin is listed as a vulnerable species by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. Much of the penguin's natural habitat has been destroyed. As well, commercial fishing fleets have reduced their food supply. Chivell has formed the Dyer Island Conservation Trust to install 800 nests at this site.

"I think they thought we're a little bit mad trying to put houses out for penguins," Chivell said. "But nesting was definitely one of the things they needed. And it's an easy thing to do."

Another group is helping penguin chicks to survive. The South African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds, or SANCCOB, has brought 62 newborns this year to an animal hospital in Cape Town.

"You see these birds come in and they're basically just a breadth of wind," Strauss said. "There's no body fat to them, they're just skinny. It's quite sad."

Venessa Strauss is a veterinary nurse. She rescues emaciated chicks that have been abandoned by their parents on the breeding islands offshore.

"The problem that African penguins face in the wild when they have to raise two chicks really is a shortage of food," Strauss said. "The birds are battling to find enough food out there. So what often happens is that they can't feed the birds enough and so your weaker chick will slowly fade away."

The team here is nursing the abandoned chicks back to health, feeding them up to eight sardines per day.

Building nests and hand-feeding chicks are not long-term solutions. But the South African government's top penguin biologist, Robert Crawford, says efforts like these are necessary. "It wouldn't be in itself sufficient to save the species, but it can have significant benefits," Crawford said. "I think it's got to that stage where every management intervention that will have benefits to the species has to be taken."

The government is considering bigger steps, such as closing parts of the coastline to fishing. But Crawford says the penguins can't wait. Back on Dyer Island, Sunet Ferreira from SANCCOB is ready to release some of the abandoned chicks back into the wild. They have been in the hospital for three months.

"This is their first time they would see the actual beach since they were chicks," Ferreira said. "So it's all new. That's why they're going to try to huddle together to get some confidence. And as soon as they feel ready they will move down to the beach,"

As Ferreira opens the cardboard boxes, 27 chicks quickly rejoin their cousins on the shoreline. Overall, SANCCOB has rescued nearly 1,400 penguins. With a species that is declining fast, scientists say every chick counts.

Terry FitzPatrick is a Cape Town correspondent for VOA.

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