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Zoos and Aquariums Mobilize to Save the African Penguin from Extinction in the Wild

unnamedOne would think there is a problem putting these two words together “African & Penguin.”  Don’t penguins need snow and ice to survive?  Looking at the 18 species of penguins found throughout the Southern Hemisphere, many of the species live in more tropical areas, not only at the bottom of the world. There are penguins found in the Galapagos Islands, South America, New Zealand, Australia — and even Africa.

I have the wonderful opportunity to work with African penguins and tell the penguin’s story of survival. It is amazing to see the “power of the penguin” when you walk into a room filled with people. Conversations stop and the focus of attention turns to a short 18-inch native of South Africa. The cell phone cameras come out and everyone wants to get closer and learn more about the African penguins.

Experts from SeaWorld and the Maryland Zoo traveled to South Africa to work alongside the South African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB) in an effort to help tag the endangered African penguin. The trip is part of the SAFE: Saving Animals From Extinction African Penguin Conservation Action Plan. Since the early 1900s the population of African penguins in the wild has dropped by 97 percent.
Experts from SeaWorld and the Maryland Zoo traveled to South Africa to work alongside the South African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB) in an effort to help tag the endangered African penguin. The trip is part of the SAFE: Saving Animals From Extinction African Penguin Conservation Action Plan. Since the early 1900s the population of African penguins in the wild has dropped by 97 percent.

However, African penguins are an Endangered Species. We have watched a steady decline of the African penguins since the late 1950s when there were around 300,000 individuals in South Africa. In 2001, there were more than 100,000 individuals and recently it has been estimated that there are fewer than 50,000 penguins left in their range country. In October, 2010, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed African penguins as Endangered. This species population is only 2.5 percent of what it was 80 years ago.  It is projected that it could be extinct in the next 10 to 15 years. Extinction is not the future for the African penguins.

The Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) set forth the AZA SAFE Program, Saving Animals From Extinction in 2015. AZA SAFE is focusing the collective expertise within our 233 accredited zoos and aquariums and leverages the 180 million guests that visit our institutions to save species. At the same time, SAFE is building capacity to increase direct conservation spending, as well as our members’ impact on saving species through work in the field, in our zoos and aquariums, and through public engagement. This has been done before. There are many examples of some species that exist only because of the efforts of aquariums and zoos and our partners.

This spring, I was appointed by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) to be the Program Coordinator for the AZA SAFE African Penguin Individual Identification Project.  For short, we’ll call it the “PIT tag project.”  PIT (passive integrated transponder) tags are commonly used to identify animals. If you have a dog or a cat, it may have a PIT tag for identification in case your pet is found without any identification.

Boulder’s Beach is one of the few mainland colonies of African penguins. Over 700,000 visitors come to see the penguins at Boulder’s annually.
Boulder’s Beach is one of the few mainland colonies of African penguins. Over 700,000 visitors come to see the penguins at Boulder’s annually.

Through a partnership of African agencies and AZA zoo and aquarium partners, the goal has been set to individually identify African penguin chicks and adults at selected colonies each year. Penguins set to be released from rehabilitation centers will also be tagged. Our goal is to tag at least 10 percentof the world’s population of African Penguins over the next three years.  Essentially that will be around 5,000 birds tagged and identified in South Africa and Namibia.

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The African penguin (Spheniscus demersus) is listed by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature as Endangered, likely to become extinct. The marine bird breeds at 25 islands and four mainland sites in Namibia and South Africa. It has been recorded as far north as Gabon and Mozambique. Population declines are largely attributed to food shortages, resulting from large catches of fish by commercial purse-seine fisheries, and environmental fluctuations, says IUCN. Photograph by David Braun.

There are 50 AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums that house African penguins, while many more have other penguin species. This creates a great opportunity for many AZA Members (keepers and veterinarians) who have experience handling and caring for these animals. With this valuable experience, our AZA community is able to help with tagging penguins by sponsoring qualified individuals to travel to South Africa to participate in tagging programs.  They will find that after participating on a field conservation trip with a species that you work with, you are a changed person. You have been to their range habitat, you have seen the challenges, and now you have become a greater ambassador for the penguin’s survival.

Over the next three years, I will be building teams of experts from all over the AZA community to partner with our South African colleagues and work on the PIT Tagging Project. It is not a job for the faint of heart. As beautiful as the South African coastline looks, the habitat does come with its challenges. African penguins have adapted to different nesting strategies due to different habitats. Throughout a colony, nests may be out in the open and easy to access; while others may be deep in the center and under the root ball of a thorny bush. So getting down on your hands and knees and crawling into a penguin nest to identify individuals is a pretty dirty job. Also, our seasons are switched since African penguins live in the Southern Hemisphere; our summer is their winter and with that, you have to be prepared to work in bulky rain gear and warm clothes.

 

The field conditions are quite harsh, penguins find areas to nest in dense, thorny underbrush which is a great defense against predators and provides protection from the weather.
The field conditions are quite harsh, penguins find areas to nest in dense, thorny underbrush which is a great defense against predators and provides protection from the weather.

In late July, two of our project partners, the Maryland Zoo and Sea World San Diego, each had a staff member able to go to South Africa and participate in the first AZA SAFE PIT Tagging Team.  Mike McClure, the Maryland Zoo and Kylene Plemons, Sea World San Diego, traveled 22 hours to Cape Town to assist our South African colleagues in tagging 104 African penguins and monitoring the colonies. They got to experience and see the challenges that the field biologists and the penguins endure every day. I know they returned energized and ready to tell the story of the African penguins and their struggle for survival.

 

The goal of the PIT tagging project is to tag at least 10 percent of the world’s population of African Penguins over the next 3 years.
The goal of the PIT tagging project is to tag at least 10 percent of the world’s population of African Penguins over the next 3 years.

There has been much learned and much more to learn in future trips to work with the field biologists, rangers and researchers. The information gathered should help support management decisions and improve habitats for the nesting colonies. The goals will be set higher for 2017 and I hope to be reporting to all of our supporters from South Africa next spring on the successes of the AZA African Penguin Individual Identification Project.

Ric Urban with an African penguin.
Ric Urban with an African penguin.

About Ric Urban, Chief Conservation Officer, Newport Aquarium

In April, 2016, Ric became the Project Coordinator for the  AZA SAFE African Penguin Individual Identification Program.  Working with project collaborators in South Africa, AZA Institutions and AZA Staff, Ric is the primary contact in organizing the materials, staff and implementation of the African Penguin Conservation Action Plan. Ric also holds a seat on the AZA African Penguin Species Survival Plan (SSP) and Penguin Taxon Advisory Group (TAG) Steering Committees.  For more information, contact rurban@newportaquarium.com