Mercy mission saves hundreds of endangered penguin chicks

Wednesday, December 1, 2010
Yarmouth Port, MA
Rescuers in South Africa have rushed to save a total of 415 endangered African penguin chicks from land and island-based penguin colonies near Cape Town, South Africa. The penguins were abandoned by their parents and were in danger of starving to death.

The rescued chicks were taken to the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB) where they will be hand-reared for a period of approximately six weeks before returning back to their colony.

Two hundred and thirty six of the rescued chicks came from Stony Point penguin colony, 155 from offshore Dyer Island, and 24 others were rescued from various colonies. This is the largest number of chicks SANCCOB has cared for at one time since 2007 when 481 abandoned chicks were treated.

The effort is part of the “Chick Bolstering Project” which is being supported by IFAW, the International Fund for Animal Welfare, in partnership with SANCCOB and other conservation groups. Since 2001, a total of 1,923 chicks were admitted to the SANCCOB center and, in 2009, 86 per cent of all chicks from molting parents rescued were successfully released back into the wild.

“This project forms an important part of safe-guarding the future viability of the African penguin population,” said Neil Greenwood, Campaigns Officer for IFAW. “African penguins are a landmark species and it would be folly not to act to save chicks wherever possible,” he said.

On several penguin colonies, chicks that hatch late in the season are frequently abandoned by their parents when the weather grows warmer and as food supplies diminish. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that remaining adult penguins begin their annual molt at this time of the year. During molting the penguins shed their old feathers and grow new ones, leaving them not waterproof and therefore unable to swim, catch fish and feed their chicks.

“Our research shows that hand rearing African penguins has a significantly positive effect on conserving the wild population, with hand reared and released chicks showing higher survivorship to breeding age and higher productivity than birds that fledge naturally in the wild,” said Venessa Strauss, Chief Executive Officer of SANCCOB.

Scientists have observed African penguin populations decline more than 60 per cent in just three generations, which led to the species’ re-classification from Vulnerable to Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species earlier this year.

Other conservation players involved in addressing the catastrophic decline in African penguin numbers by initiating the “Chick Bolstering Project” include the Bristol Zoo, the Animal Demography Unit at the University of Cape Town, Robben Island Museum, and CapeNature.

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