Rescued Penguins Hit the Water for a Short Swim to Freedom

Tuesday, January 11, 2011
Cape Town, South Africa
Not so much of a long walk, but a short swim to freedom saw 60 endangered African penguins take to the waters off Robben Island, South Africa this week to return to the penguin colony on the World Heritage Site.

On a perfect summer’s afternoon and cheered on by dozens of tourists on board the boat transporting the birds, the penguins plunged one by one over the edge into perfectly calm waters. To add to the idyllic scene, a school of Heavyside’s dolphins also arrived to greet the new arrivals.

In November, 482 African penguin chicks were rescued by SANCCOB (the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds), partnered by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW – www.ifaw.org) and other groups as part of the African Penguin Chick Bolstering Project (APCBP).

The Chick Bolstering Project saves chicks that have hatched late in the season and are often abandoned by their moulting parents when the weather grows warmer and as food supplies diminish. The problem is made worse as adult penguins begin their annual moult at this time of the year, shedding their old feathers and growing new ones, and making them not waterproof and therefore unable to swim, catch fish and feed their chicks.

The Chick Bolstering Projects removes the abandoned chicks from their colonies to be hand reared before being released back into the wild. In November a total of 482 chicks were rescued and to date 165 have been released. Currently 284 chicks and other rehabilitated penguins remain in the care of SANCCOB’s centre in Cape Town and the organisation expects a release rate of between 75 and 80 per cent for the chicks. A total of 300 chicks will carry permanent metal bands and will be monitored for breeding locality and success.

“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.”

Venessa Strauss, Chief Executive Officer of SANCCOB, said hand rearing chicks had been shown to have a significantly positive effect on conserving wild populations. “Hand reared chicks show higher survivorship to breeding age and higher productivity than birds that fledge naturally in the wild,” she said.

IFAW’s support of this season’s bolstering initiative including funding the assistance of veterinarian Dr. Ralph Vanstreels, a Ph.D. student in Comparative Animal Pathology at the University of Saõ Paulo in Brazil.

“SANCCOB has developed successful and world-recognised standards for penguin rehabilitation and medicine. They have developed an effective conservation action for an endangered species which extends way beyond their local scenario,” said Vanstreels.

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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