The African Penguin and Seabird Sanctuary are returning 70 African penguins to their home on Dyer Island today (28 Dec 2021).
A total of 202 chicks were removed between October and November and hand-raised at the African Penguin & Seabird Sanctuary (APSS), a project of the Dyer Island Conservation Trust. The removal of compromised and orphaned chicks is one of the actions to try to stabilise the declining African penguin population and is part of the African Penguin Biodiversity Management Plan of the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and Environment.
Over the last 30 years (three generations), the number of African penguins breeding in South Africa has declined by 73% from ~42,500 breeding pairs in 1991 to ~10,400 pairs in 2021 (Sherley et al. 2021).
The chicks are removed at the end of the breeding season, when the adults go through their annual moult. Due to a variety of circumstance, some parents start their moult before their offspring has reached the fledgling stage.These chicks will either starve to death on the island or venture into the ocean without the required amount of fat reserves to allow them to survive the challenges of the wild.
An additional challenge this year was the Avian Influenza outbreak that ravaged seabird populations in the Western Cape. Dyer Island was the epicenter of the outbreak. The Cape cormorant and African penguin populations were especially hard hit. According to Xolani Lawo, the Senior Bird Rehabilitator at the APSS the added pressure of Avian Influenza, made the task of caring for these chicks a mammoth undertaking. “All the penguins had to be quarantined for a period of five days. The increased bio-security and testing measures added a big financial burden on the already stressed budget of the APSS. We are deeply grateful for all the support we have received from private and corporate donors, as well as those who visit our coffee and curio shop at the penguin sanctuary as all profits remain dedicated to our conservation efforts “said Lawo.
“The African penguin population needs all the help they can get to prevent this species from becoming extinct in the wild. Today we celebrate the release of 70 African penguin fledglings back into the big blue,” said DICT Conservation Manager Trudi Malan. “This is the second group of birds that have reached the target weight of 2.8kg and can now be returned to the island. The remaining penguins will hopefully be released early in the new year.
Dyer Island is classified as an Important Bird Area (IBA) and under the protective management of CapeNature. An avian influenza outbreak amongst wild birds is a devastating as there is no cure or intervention to treat affected birds. CapeNature followed the best course of action which is to lower the viral load by removing sick birds and carcasses from the environment. As of 26 December, the count was 15 221 deceased seabirds on the island.
CEO of the Dyer Island Conservation Trust, Wilfred Chivell added, “The rescue, rehabilitation and release of these birds are but a small step in the actions required to arrest the decline of this species. Our penguins face many threats and active interventions like the limited closure for fishing around the island during certain times of the year should be implemented as soon as possible.”