In connection with African Penguin Awareness day on the 8th of October, WWF-Norway’s African based Senior Advisor Melissa de Kock writes about these fascinating birds that are one of her favorite animals in the world.
By: Melissa de Kock, Senior Advisor in WWF-Norway
As a student I used to go to the beach next to their breeding site at Boulders near Cape Town, South Africa, and hope for an encounter with these beautiful sea birds. Being expert swimmers, with their wings actually being flippers, they would often swim across between their nesting sites and the public beach. They could be seen dashing between human swimmers, in and out of the waves. And if I was really lucky, one of these charismatic birds would plop down next to me under my umbrella to get some respite from the heat. Sadly, these face-to-face encounters are becoming increasingly rare as the pressures on these animals increases.
Clumsy on land – a champion in water
The African Penguin is found on the southwestern coast of Africa. They live mainly on islands off Namibia and South Africa but they have also colonized a few areas on the mainland, for example Boulders Beach near Cape Town. These sea birds weigh between 2.4 and 3.6 kilos and grow to 60-70 cm in height. They have a lifespan of 10 – 30 years, and breed for the first time between 4 and 6 years of age. African penguins look pretty clumsy on dry land but in the water can of reach speeds of around 20 km/hour when hunting! A top Olympic swimmer reaches about 9km/hour.
Mating for life and sharing the parental responsibilities
They usually lay two eggs in nests that are dug out in sand, under rocks or bushes in the shade. African Penguins are monogamous and are said to mate for life. The parents share the tasks of looking after the eggs. Once their young are hatched, they take it in turns to sit on the eggs to keep them warm, and then looking after the baby penguins. African penguins feed on anchovies and sardines that swim in the cold coastal waters. The parents take turns going fishing for the family.
These wonderful creatures are classified as Endangered by IUCN. This is because the population is in serious decline due to habitat destruction, commercial over-fishing, pollution and oil spills. Just over 100 years ago there were about 3 million African Penguins in the wild. Globally there are fewer than 25 000 pairs left today – only 50 000 birds!
Humans are the biggest threat
Threats to African Penguins include being hunted by sharks, leopard seals, sea lions and fur seals. But humans are really the biggest threat to their survival. Climate change is affecting the temperature of seas, and warmer ocean temperatures are changing the migration patterns of the fish penguins eat. In addition, ocean acidification caused by absorbing greenhouse gases, is affecting the food they eat.
Overfishing is another problem – humans, and often domestic pets – are eating the fish that penguins need to survive. Now the adults must swim farther and use more energy to find adequate food for themselves and their chicks. Sometimes penguins die at sea looking for food, or those waiting on land for them to return die of starvation.
Oil pollution has killed thousands of penguins in Africa. Penguins are very vulnerable to oil spills because they have to come to the surface to breathe. Since they can’t fly, they are less able to see and avoid oil than other seabirds. In 1994, rescuers took in 10 000 penguins affected by the sinking of the ship Apollo off South Africa’s coast, 5 000 of which survived. Six years later, 19 000 were contaminated by a similar sinking of a ship called the Treasure, and 17 000 survived.
Other manmade threats to penguins include destruction of their habitat impacts from oil spills or construction, competition with humans for food and space to live, and illegal egg harvesting by people.
So what can you do to help the African penguin survive?
- Think about the fish that you eat and feed your pets. Are you eating penguins’ food? Choose to eat only fish on the green list.
- Reduce your greenhouse gas emissions to slow climate change.
- Donate to help stop climate change, reduce oil spills and make seafood sustainable.