Researchers to save African penguins with new breeding colonies

African Penguins at Boulders Beach, South Africa, photo: Chance Brown on Unsplash
African Penguins at Boulders Beach, South Africa, photo: Chance Brown on Unsplash

South African researchers plan to release a group of hand-reared African penguin chicks at the Western Cape’s De Hoop nature reserve to start a new breeding colony. The animals are at risk of extinction.

The population plunged from one million breeding pairs in the 1920s to around 13,000 breeding pairs in 2019, government data shows. Their numbers started declining when humans started stealing and eating their eggs.

In recent years, the decline is also caused by a lack of food sources, mainly fish like anchovy and sardine, and climate change.

Researchers plan to release around 50 juvenile birds each year for several years, starting in early 2021, to try to establish a breeding colony at De Hoop, a protected site.

“A couple of months ago, when I was at the site, I saw a juvenile penguin within 10 meters of the shore, said Christina Hagen, who leads the project. “Unfortunately, he didn’t come ashore.”

Since January 2019, researchers have been trying to lure the animals to come ashore at De Hoop by placing dummy penguins that make sounds that resemble the distinctive calls of the birds. But with no success.

Now, they’re going to try luring male penguins with female penguins. Hagen said hand-reared females were normally released into existing colonies, such as those at Robben Island or Boulders beach.

De Hoop has good fishing waters critical for a new colony, Hagen said, and had been used briefly by penguins in the mid-2000s. The animals deserted the area when leopards started preying on them.

“It is hard to say if they’ll actually go extinct, but it is a real possibility and we are doing all that we can to prevent that,” Hagen said.

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