Creating new African penguin colonies

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Penguins in Southern Africa have not had the best of luck. Guano harvesting and the collection of penguin eggs by the millions – right up until the 1960s – have threatened populations. Despite conservation efforts to eradicate these actions, problems continue. The shift of sardines and anchovies in a south-easterly direction has left penguin colonies on South Africa’s West Coast in a predicament. 

Conservationists are now thinking of new strategies to help the penguins take advantage of the change in fish distribution and bridge the 600km gap between the eastern and western populations, in case something should happen at one of the sites. One of the answers to the dwindling numbers might lie in creating new penguin colonies.

“By helping the penguins to colonise new areas that were previously unavailable to them, we hope to increase their population and decrease the risk to any one colony,” says Christina Hagen, Pamela Isdell Fellow of Penguin Conservation at BirdLife South Africa. Together with CapeNature, they have earmarked De Hoop Nature Reserve and Marine Protected Area as a potential site.

This exact location was once home to a small group of penguins, but predators soon reduced the population. To prevent this from happening again, the area has been fenced off. In addition, members of the public have no access to this section on the eastern edge of the reserve.

De Hoop Nature Reserve home to African penguins

Because it can take time for the penguins to colonise a site, the conservationists developed innovative methods to make the area more appealing. In a first-of-its-kind experiment, penguin models were placed at the site to lure penguins to the area. This is combined with call-backs to simulate an existing colony, encouraging newcomers to make use of the area.

Conservationists are now thinking of new strategies to help the penguins

Artist Roelf Daling came on board to design the penguin models, saying the project was exactly what he was looking for. “I’ve been contemplating how to bridge the gap between art and science with sculpture, and not just on a conceptual or experimental level.”

He spent hours at the Boulders Penguin Colony to ensure the decoys were as close to real penguins as possible. “I sculpted these faux beasts to appear slightly plump, indicating an abundance of food, a slightly asleep, an indication of safety,” Daling says.

The site was ready for the new arrivals in December 2018. “Sadly, they have not arrived yet,” says Hagen. “But we are not expecting results right away.” Monitoring efforts by CapeNature rangers in the Marine Protected Area, and GPS tracking studies indicate that penguins are known to swim past the location.

penguin

At Boulders Beach in Simon’s Town and Stony Point in Betty’s Bay, penguins have proven they are willing to establish mainland colonies if the conditions are perfect. Hagen says no minimum numbers are required as both colonies started with small numbers in the 1980s. They will wait for a year to see whether any penguins colonise the area. “If it does not work then the next step will be to move fledged chicks that can look after themselves to the area.”

“CapeNature is committed to supporting and contributing to ecologically sustainable projects based on sound science in accordance with the IUCN Guidelines for Reintroductions and Other Conservation Translocations, aimed at ensuring the long-term survival of the African Penguin in the wild,” says Dr Razeena Omar, CapeNature CEO.

Read about how long-distance runner and birder, Dave Chamberlain, is creating awareness for the African Penguin Relocation Project

Written by: René de Klerk

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