72 endangered African penguins from Algoa Bay oil spill released

SEPTEMBER 16, 2016

The Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB), the National Sea Rescue Institute (NSRI) and the Marine Rangers from the Addo Elephant National Park – South African National Parks (SANParks) have released 72 rehabilitated African penguins back into their colony in St Croix Island following a recent oil spill in Algoa Bay.

This is the second group of penguins released by SANCCOB and SANParks after the oil spill that occurred in late August 2016. SANCCOB’s centre in Cape St Francis admitted a total of 92 oiled African penguins and 61 penguin chicks with help of SANParks and the NSRI. A smaller group of 14 rehabilitated penguins were also released at St Croix Island after being approved for release by SANCCOB’s team.

Juanita Raath, SANCCOB’s Rehabilitation Coordinator in the Eastern Cape, said, “We are extremely happy to release such a big group of penguins back into the wild today and give these individuals a second chance at life. With the current South African population numbers at just over 19 000 breeding pairs, saving each individual penguin is crucial to the survival of the species.

"We are thankful to all the partners involved in making this a successful rescue operation and to all the volunteers and supporters for standing side-by-side with us throughout the rehabilitation process.”

SANCCOB’s team of staff and volunteers washed the first penguins on Sunday, 21 August, with the last bird being washed on Thursday afternoon, 25 August. The entire washing and rinsing process of each bird can take up to two hours followed by a comprehensive rehabilitation programme.

Penguins are only released once SANCCOB’s staff have determined that their feathers are waterproof, their blood tests do not show any signs of infection and that they weigh at least 2.8 kilograms. Each penguin also receives a special transponder micro-chip that allows conservation staff and researchers to effectively monitor the birds after being released.

A number of washed penguins are still in SANCCOB’s care together with more than 60 penguin chicks that still need to grow into healthy juveniles before they can also go back into the wild.

The African penguin is endemic to southern Africa. It was once one of South Africa’s most abundant seabirds, but has suffered a massive population decline.

Algoa Bay, where St Croix Island is situated, is home to about 60% of the world’s African penguin population. In the early 20th century the total wild population was estimated at one million breeding pairs; today the total estimate is less than 25 000 breeding pairs left in South African and Namibia, with only 19 284 breeding pairs recorded in South Africa in 2015 (South African Department of Environmental Affairs: Oceans and Coasts).

Due to its rapid population decline, this iconic species, which breeds at 29 locations in South Africa and southern Namibia, was listed as Endangered on the IUCN Red List in 2010.

The exact cause of the oil spill is still to be confirmed by authorities investigating the matter.