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African Penguins: General Information on the Threatened Species

Along the Southern and Western coasts of Africa and in various zoos and aquariums resides a penguin colloquially known as the jackass bird. The nickname comes from its donkey-like mating call. In the wild, they can live 10-15 years, but based on existing population trends, there is only that amount of time before the species goes extinct in the wild. 


The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) currently lists African penguins (Spheniscus demersus) as endangered. Egg harvesting and major oil spills in the area continue to harm the bird, while sea temperature changes have depleted the food supply around them. Climate change has also caused flooding in their habitats, resulting in chick and egg losses. 


The African Penguin may have been one of the first penguins discovered by humans and is likely to be closely related to Galapagos, Humboldt, and Magellanic Penguins, through a shared evolutionary ancestor. 


African Penguins play large roles in their local ecosystems and maintaining balances of nutrients in the vicinity. Their actions also move schools of fish towards other sea birds. 


African penguins serve an economic function, as many tourists travel to colonies to view the penguins, which has led to tourist attractions forming near them. One colony at Simon’s Town was the subject of a Netflix documentary series called “Penguin Town”. 


Gathering enough food has been a problem for the penguins for decades. The birds eat small fish such as anchovies, whose supply has decreased in past years. Because of this, the penguins compete with local fisheries for the limited supply. 


According to the IUCN, only 41,700 African penguins exist today, a stark contrast from the estimated 300,000 in the 1950s. The penguins live in large colonies, most of which can’t be accessed by people. Individual colonies have been going extinct in the past two decades. As colonies become smaller, birds move towards the more dangerous edges of the colonies, a risk for the declining population. 


To combat the declining population, organizations such as the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB) have been working to rescue and rehabilitate wild penguins. 


Since its founding in 1968, SANCCOB has worked to rescue and rehabilitate penguins from various dangers, such as  oil spills or net entanglement. The organization has a 24/7 rescue service for emergencies, and also works to research and monitor the state of the species. 


Late in 2022, Avian flu struck the Boulders Penguin Colony near Cape Town, killing about thirty of the already-endangered species. SANCCOB worked to isolate the sick penguins and lessen the spread of the disease. The organization also worked immediately after oil spills in 1994 and 2000 to help oiled birds, rehabilitating thousands of endangered penguins.  


The Save Animals From Extinction (SAFE) organization is currently dedicated to ensuring the survival of various endangered species, including the African Penguin. The organization works with AZA (Association of Zoo and Aquarium) certified zoos and aquariums to ensure the species’ survival and to educate the public about penguins. 


One of their projects is developing artificial nests, because of the species’ habitat loss. The boxes are meticulously planned and tailored to the penguins’ needs. The organization has currently installed 1,300 artificial nests in penguin colonies and is tracking how the penguins use the nests and the number of eggs laid. 


SAFE has a Species Survival Plan for the African Penguin within captivity, partnering with AZA-certified zoos and aquariums to ensure not only the species’ survival but its genetic diversity. 


Genetic diversity makes a species more resilient to crises such as diseases. With climate change as a pressing issue for the penguins, genetic diversity has become all the more important, as the species may need to adapt to sudden changes. 


One of the managers of the program works for the Mystic Aquarium in Mystic, Connecticut. The Mystic Aquarium, which is part of the species survival plan, hosts some of the world’s oldest African Penguins, at 35 years old. It also hosts a yearly penguin waddle, where the registration fee goes towards penguin conservation. 


Another partner is the Tulsa Zoo, which recently had the public vote on the name of a recently hatched penguin chick. The new chick, River, was named after Yankee pitcher Mariano River and is currently a full-grown juvenile.  


According to the AZA, the number of birds in the program has increased, along with the amount of genetic diversity within the penguin population. 


African penguins are far from the only penguin species listed as endangered, in fact over half of the seventeen existing penguin species are listed as vulnerable or endangered. The penguin species is one of the most endangered seabird species in the world, in part because of habitat loss due to climate change. 


If the African Penguin does go extinct, it would not be the first species of penguin to die out, nor the first to do so because of human interference. Hunting and egg collection killed off the Great Auks in the mid-1800s, and only preservations can be found in museums. 


African penguins are one of many species at an increased risk of extinction because of climate change and are far from the only species that may go extinct because of human action. According to the IUCN, over 10,000 species are currently affected by climate change, and that number will rise if greenhouse gas emissions do not decrease.  


In October 2022, the US Fish and Wildlife Services gave the Emperor Penguin endangered species protection, because it risked extinction based on available predictions. The Galapagos penguin is currently listed as the most endangered penguin species, with a population of less than 2,000, and is also threatened by nesting site loss and climate change.   

Those interested in supporting the continued survival of the African penguins can donate to zoos and aquariums partnered with the species survival program, such as through the animal parent program at the Mystic Aquarium, sponsor an artificial nest with SAFE Africa Penguins, or adopt a penguin chick through SANCCOB.  


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