Saving Penguins in South Africa

The African penguin population is in rapid decline. In 2008 the population reached an all-time low of 26,000 breeding pairs, down from an estimated two million pairs at the turn of the 20th century.

IFAW’s Baby Penguin Rescue Project saves the lives of hundreds of penguin chicks each year by rescuing and hand-rearing chicks that are abandoned by their parents toward the end of the breeding season.

Recent research by the University of Cape Town’s Percy Fitzpatrick Institution shows that the African penguin population along the coast of South Africa is 19 percent higher than it would have been in the absence of these kinds of rescue and rehabilitation efforts.

How we hand-rear penguin chicks

The Baby Penguin Rescue Project collects abandoned African penguin chicks from Dyer and Robben Islands and brings them to a rescue center for rearing and rehabilitation.

On several penguin colonies, including Dyer Island and Stoney Point near Betty’s Bay, chicks that hatch late in the season (from September onward) are frequently abandoned by their parents when the weather turns warmer and as food supplies diminish. The chicks cannot go to sea to feed themselves because they haven’t molted out of their chick feathers yet, and they end up starving.

IFAW rescues these chicks and hand-rears them at the Cape Town rehabilitation center of IFAW partner Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB).

After rescuing the baby penguins (which are only 6 to 8 weeks old), dedicated staff and volunteers have their work cut out for them. The smallest of the ravenous youngsters must be fed and hydrated every three hours. In addition to fish, the penguins get a daily dose of a special fish formula.

The chicks spend approximately three months undergoing rehabilitation before being released back into their home colonies.

Once rehabilitated, the fledglings, banded for identification purposes, are then re-introduced to the islands where post-release observations can determine their survival rate and fecundity. We also are researching what makes penguins return to the same site to breed, with the hope of eventually setting up new colonies in safer places.

In the last five years the Baby Penguin Rescue Project has reared close to 2,000 orphaned chicks. More than 86 percent of the rescued chicks were released back to the wild.