Penguins are plummeting – but we can help them!



If we don’t help today, how many African Penguins will be left when you are a grandparent? In South Africa there were 56,000 pairs in 2001. Ten years later in 2011 there were only about 20,000. And now we think the number is closer to 10,000. These penguins, and many other seabirds, rely on the Benguela upwelling system, which brings cold water with lots of nutrients up from the seafloor. This means that the penguins only live in the cold wasters along the coasts of South Africa and Namibia. In the whole world. So it is our responsibility to protect them.

What went wrong? The main problem is that African Penguins are running out of food. Some of their favourite snacks are anchovies and sardines. But these two fish species have moved from the West Coast to the Agulhas Bank, closer to Port Elizabeth. Back in the day there were huge penguin colonies on the islands of the West Coast, but now the birds are struggling to find enough food and are becoming fewer and fewer. The fishing industry along the West Coast is also struggling.

Penguins also have to deal with predators, such as Cape Fur Seals, Kelp Gulls and even Great White Pelicans. Formerly, guano (a.k.a. penguin poop) was very valuable because it was used as plant fertiliser.  Guano mining is not done any more, but because of all the many years of poop-scooping, the penguins no longer have a thick layer to tunnel into when they nest. Often they have to lay their eggs on the surface. This makes the eggs and chicks more vulnerable to gull attacks, high temperatures and extreme storms. 

But luckily there are lots of people who are working very hard to help penguins. BirdLife South Africa and SANCCOB are among them. They came up with a brilliant new plan. Wouldn’t it be good if the birds could move closer to their fish food? The problem is that there are no breeding colonies for about 600 km between Gansbaai and Port Elizabeth. But what if we could encourage penguins to make a brand new colony?

That’s exactly the plan. First, the penguin conservationists looked for the perfect site. And they found it: the beautiful and protected De Hoop Nature Reserve. There was actually a small colony here in the early 2000’s but they all disappeared. We think that a caracal killed a lot of them. So BirdLife SA made a plan: they built a 2.4 m high predator-proof fence around the the colony, which keeps out caracals, leopards, mongooses and other predators. 

Now they had to get the penguins to come onto the shore and start nesting. And how did they do that? Through some clever trickery! They made and painted lots of decoy penguins – little statues that look just like the real thing – and put them on the rocks where real penguins would see them. Then they put out speakers and played penguin sounds. 

There was also a Phase 2. Sometimes penguin chicks or eggs are abandoned by their parents. People rescue these and raise the youngsters in captivity at the SANCCOB building in Cape Town. Once the chicks are old enough to fend for themselves, they can be released. So the conservation people drove them to the new colony site in De Hoop and released them there. It is hoped that the young penguins will return back to their release site once they are old enough to breed. More than 140 youngsters have been released at the new colony.

And has the plan worked? In August 2022 there were at least seven adult penguins at the colony, and they seemed to be looking for nest sites. Then, in November 2022, all the hard work paid off! Two babies waddled out from under a boulder, following their parents into their new home. Success! 

But that’s only one nest. That’s not enough to save penguins from extinction. But still, it’s a great site and we hope that those two chicks will be the first of many more to come. It will probably take many years for the colony to grow. The colony at Betty’s Bay was startd in 1982 and now has about 1,600 pairs. The colony at Boulders near Simon’s Town began in 1985, and now has about 1,000 pairs.

While most colonies are on islands, these two are on the mainland. That means people can visit them. At the Betty’s Bay colony you have to stay on the boardwalk, but at the Boulders colony you can walk and swim alongside the penguins. It’s an incredible experience! The penguins pretty much ignore the people and do their thing. They even walk around in the streets or the town (so check under your car before your start driving). You can watch their adventures on the Netflix show Penguin Town. From all us birders, and all the penguins, we say thank you to all the people who are working hard to save this beautiful species!

ABOVE: BirdLife South Africa’s video of the penguin release at De Hoop. Find out more at their website.
ABOVE: A parent with two recently hatched chicks. Photo by Bernd Dittrich.
ABOVE: The penguin colony at Boulders near Simon’s Town. Photo by Chance Brown.
ABOVE: What if this was the last penguin ever? Photo by Joshua Kettle.