• Nadine Clarke

Plight of the African Penguin -

When you head to Mossdustria, the industrial estate in Mossel Bay, the last thing you'd expect to find is a waddle of African penguins and Cape Gannets guzzling fish and squawking happily. However, hidden deep in its recesses on a small, unassuming plot of land, two conservationists fight to save these highly endangered seabirds from various injuries and, ultimately, extinction.

Seabird and Penguin Rehabilitation Centre (SAPREC) was founded in March 2005 by penguin lover and experienced rehabilitator, Carol Walton. She has been working with the birds for over 30 years, starting out as a member of SANCCOB (South African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds) in Cape Town.

After moving to Mossel Bay, Carol became the first point of call for people who found the injured seabirds as they knew of her previous experience. She began housing the injured birds in her garage. However, as more calls came in, she saw the need for a bigger centre. SAPREC’s current facility is what Carol calls ‘core rehabilitation’, where penguin release is the priority. Although there are around fifteen birds that cannot be released, the centre receives birds in various states, with some birds suffering deformities from seal bites and others the victims of human carelessness, like plastic pollution or boat propellers. Once the birds reach the centre, they are checked, given the necessary medication or physical rehabilitation, and are then released at Fransmanshoek beach near Vleesbaai. Carol has helped thousands of birds through this process, which is crucial for the survival of their species.

But why, in Mossel Bay, does penguin rehabilitation matter? As Carol explains, ‘Penguins are an indicator of the health of our oceans. With the population going down so fast, we can see that there is something drastically wrong.’ She predicts that these birds will be extinct within a decade, as breeding pairs worldwide stand at only 16,000. A shocking drop from the 1 million in the early 1900s.

The major threats to African penguins, Cape Gannets and other highly endangered seabird species are exploitation of fish stocks, degradation of the ocean environment and the alarming rise in microplastics. ‘It is overfishing, oil and plastic pollution,' says Carol. "They are eating the fish which are eating the microplastics. There were some post-mortems done in Cape Town recently and found microplastics in their stomachs.’

Penguins are also being hunted by seals, which are thriving in the area due to a decrease in shark populations. As seals take over, they prey on penguins disproportionately. The fine-tuned balance of the ecosystem has been upset and seabirds are paying the price. These factors have led to 70% of seabird species being endangered, and a growing number of penguins ending up in rehabilitation centers like SAPREC.

As wild populations dwindle, conservationists have begun to take action to re-establish colonies in the Western Cape area. In fact, Bird Life South Africa is currently directing its efforts towards Plettenberg Bay and is using puppets and penguin noises to encourage natural migration and colonization. The area currently poses some management issues, but they have conducted surveys assessing potential food sources and predators for the colony. Carol says she will be helping later in the project, once the penguins move past the initial stages of re-introduction.

In addition to conservationists’ efforts to re-establish wild penguin colonies in the area, everyday citizens also have a responsibility to protect penguin populations. As Carol laments, single-use plastics are a major culprit in the downfall of penguins. Carol says she cannot imagine a world without these seabirds, however if change does not happen now, she may have to.

‘Please recycle and don’t use single-use plastic. I think we need to educate people.’ She passionately believes that these actions, as well as spreading the message, are the most important steps to bringing these penguins back from the brink of extinction. ‘It is so sad, and humanity has a lot to answer for.’