Written by: Francois Louw, Development and Marketing Coordinator at SANCCOB
SANCCOB (the South African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds) is synonymous with African penguins, the only penguin species to occur naturally on the African continent. Since being established in 1968, SANCCOB has treated approximately 90,000 oiled, ill, injured and abandoned African penguins and other seabirds with the help from countless volunteers and conservation partners like the Department of Environmental Affairs, South African National Parks and CapeNature.
In a non-spill year, SANCCOB treats close to 2,500 seabirds of which approximately 1,500 are African penguins at both its strategically placed centres in Cape Town (Western Cape) and Cape St. Francis (Eastern Cape). SANCCOB also contributes to research which benefits seabirds, conducts research that aims to inform management authorities, trains people to care for the birds and educates the public to appreciate this unique heritage.
The African penguin is one of 18 penguin species found globally. Historically it was referred to as the Jackass penguin because of its donkey-like bray. These tenacious birds breed at 29 locations in South Africa and southern Namibia, with seven islands supporting 80% of the global population.
The species has consistently declined from an estimated 1 million breeding pairs in the 1930s to a point where only 17,263 African penguin breeding pairs remain in the wild in South Africa today (latest figures released by the Department of Environmental Affairs). This translates into an approximate decline of 98% in less than a century. From 2001 to 2009, the numbers plummeted by nearly 60% alone. As a result, the species was up-listed from vulnerable to endangered on the IUCN Red List in 2010.
Various factors over the past century have contributed to the constant and steep decline of the population. During the early 20th century, penguin eggs were commercially harvested as a delicacy for the European market. It is also estimated that approximately 1.8 million tonnes of guano, in which penguins burrow to nest and seek shelter, was removed from penguin colonies between 1841 and 1983 to be used as fertiliser. Due to the devastating effects of these commercial practices on the population, both were abolished towards the end of the 20th century. Currently, the biggest threats to the species include habitat destruction, commercial over-fishing which has depleted fish stocks, oil and marine pollution, and predation by (amongst other) Cape fur seals, sharks, feral cats and mongoose.
Research confirms that the African penguin population is 19% higher as a direct result of SANCCOB’s oil spill response efforts. In 2000, these charismatic birds were in the global spotlight as 20,000 African penguins were oiled after the sinking of the MV Treasure in Cape Town. The subsequent rescue effort undertaken by SANCCOB and its partners is still recognised as the biggest wildlife rescue in the world. With the help of 2,500 volunteers, SANCCOB and its partners successfully rehabilitated and released 90% of the penguins back into the wild. A further 20,000 penguins were relocated 800 kilometres east to allow for a major coastal clean-up during the two weeks it took for them to swim back to their colony.
A natural event that has been recorded since the 1930s, numerous penguin chicks are abandoned when the adults start their moulting cycle. During this three week process when they replace their plumage with a brand new set of waterproof feathers, they are unable to hunt for fish and feed their young. The chicks that are not yet ready to fledge are abandoned and face starvation.
With the help from the MySchoolMyVillageMyPlanet programme, SANCCOB is able to continue its vital seabird conservation work 365-days of the year.