Over 150 oiled endangered Algoa Bay penguins admitted at SANCCOB

AUGUST 25, 2016

The Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB) on Wednesday said that it has admitted 92 oiled African penguins and 61 African penguin chicks to its centre in Cape St Francis, following an oil spill in Algoa Bay on Saturday.

The affected birds were rescued this past week from St Croix Island by the Marine Rangers from the Addo Elephant National Park – South African National Parks (SANParks), the National Sea Rescue Institute (NSRI) and SANCCOB in a collaborative rescue operation and transported to SANCCOB’s seabird centre in Cape St Francis and to the South African Marine Rehabilitation and Education Centre (SAMREC) in Port Elizabeth.

Staff at SANCCOB’s Eastern Cape centre first started admitting oiled birds on Tuesday. Although it is still unclear what the exact cause of the oil spill is, authorities are investigating the source of the oil.

An additional support team from SANCCOB’s centre in Cape Town was deployed to Cape St Francis to assist with the rehabilitation of the oiled penguins and rescued chicks. Most of the penguins are heavily oiled, with some having as much as 90% of their bodies covered in oil.

Oil breaks down the natural waterproofing of a penguin’s feathers and makes it unable to regulate its body temperature, both in the ocean and on land, often leading to hypothermia, if not treated. Oil also causes skin and eye irritation. A natural reaction for penguins is to preen their feathers to remove the oil which can result in ingestion of oil, ultimately leading to ulcers, a reduced immune system and organ failure.

Birds admitted to the centre are usually dehydrated, stressed and weak.

The oiled birds received a few days of intensive care to improve their strength and hydration while the penguin chicks are being cared for in separate enclosures.

The first oiled birds were washed on Sunday and Monday. Removing oil from a penguin’s feathers begins with applying a solution that breaks down the oil, before the bird is cleaned with a small brush and washed in a warm soapy solution. The bird is then rinsed thoroughly to remove all the soap from its feathers, helping it to regain its natural waterproofing.

The entire washing and rinsing process takes between one and two hours before the birds are placed in drying pens under infra-red heat lamps that speed up the drying process. The remainder of the birds will be washed in the next two to three weeks while the staff and volunteers will ensure that they are fed, hydrated and swum to ensure that they regain the natural waterproofing of their feathers.

Juanita Raath, SANCCOB’s Rehabilitation Coordinator in the Eastern Cape, said, “The rescue efforts are going well at the centre and we are grateful for all the support from our partners and the local community. The team of staff and volunteers are working round the clock to ensure that the birds get the best care possible. We are glad to have washed the first oiled birds the past few days and pleased to see that the penguin chicks are healthy and gaining weight.”

The 61 abandoned penguin chicks were also rescued from St Croix Island and admitted for rehabilitation. Having yet to reach fledgling age, these affected chicks are not able hunt for fish yet and would otherwise starve in the colony without their parents’ care. On admission, the chicks are placed on a regime of fish formula, vitamins and fish fillets to ensure they gain weight appropriately for their age. Hand-rearing of these chicks is likely to take eight weeks or more until they have grown into young juveniles, able to care for themselves in the wild.

At the moment, SANCCOB has sufficient staff and volunteers to assist in the rehabilitation of these endangered seabirds, but asks the public to assist by donating newspapers and towels, which are greatly needed during such an emergency. These items can be dropped off at SANCCOB’s centre in Cape St Francis (next to the Seal Point Lighthouse) or at the Wimpy drop-off point in Jeffrey’s Bay.

The African penguin is the only penguin species to naturally occur on the African continent. It was once one of South Africa’s most abundant seabirds, but has suffered a massive population decline. In the early 20th century the population was estimated at one million breeding pairs; today the total estimate is less than 25 000 breeding pairs, with only 19 284 breeding pairs recorded in South Africa in 2015 (South African Department of Environmental Affairs: Oceans and Coasts).

The present population represents approximately only 2,5% of its prevalence some 80 years ago and, most worryingly, the decrease is continuing. Due to the rapid decline, this indicator species, which breeds at 29 locations in South African and southern Namibia, was listed as Endangered on the IUCN Red List in 2010.