For the past few weeks, we have had many sightings of this fascinating and beautiful bird in our Knysna area, which has heightened our awareness of the plight of this highly endangered species. While we thoroughly enjoy encountering them in the wild, seeing them in our waters is a sign of how far they need to travel to find food, because it is very far from their closest colony.
In some ways the African penguin shares the same fate as that of the rhino in that the numbers have depleted so dramatically that only human intervention can ensure their survival. There are today 90% fewer African penguins than in 1900. Since the year 2000 their numbers have halved! They are fighting for survival as a species.
Even though there is currently intervention by a number of agencies, such as SANCCOB, attempting to secure their future, there are many threats facing this amazing seabird.
So the question arises as to why we are suddenly seeing so many African penguins?
Those that we see are most probably from the Algoa Bay area where six islands are home to the biggest African penguin population in the world and in particular the islands of St Croix and Bird island. Here the birds are threatened by numerous factors, the first being the human one. The Nqura development close to these islands will soon house an aluminium plant as well as an oil refinery. Oil pollution is further complicated by the increase in shipping in the area. Commercial fishing, in particular purse-seining fishing for shoaling fish such as anchovies and pilchards also poses a massive threat. We are literally pillaging their food source.
To counteract the abovementioned problems to some degree has resulted in fishing exclusion zones within a 20 km radius around these islands on a 3 years on and 3 years off basis. Assistance with fibreglass igloos to assist breeding is also paying dividends. Sanpark rangers in the Algoa area regularly monitor the existing local penguin population.
The scientific term for the African penguin is Sphemiscus demersus. Sphemiscus is a diminutive of the Greek word “spem’ meaning a wedge which refers to their streamlined swimming style. In fact when hunting they reach speeds of 20 kmph!
They are monogamous creatures. Male and female birds share equally in the incubation duties and guard their chicks for approximately 30 days. Generally they remain within 400 km of their breeding location but have been recorded as far as 900 km.
In December 2013 the African (or jackass) penguin was placed on the list of Amazing Species on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and on their red list for endangered species.
When you see these beautiful birds it is worth remembering that they need the same attention and respect that is given to the rhino!