On the brink: Can the African Penguin be saved from extinction?

Mar 23, 2023 | WFA News

Since the turn of the 20th century, the wild African Penguin population has declined by 97%, with the estimated number of remaining breeding pairs being only 14 700 (as of 2021). The species is in crisis; if current population trajectories continue, the African Penguin, listed as Endangered by IUCN, will become functionally extinct.

 Algoa Bay, on the southern eastern coast of South Africa, is a Marine Protected Area managed as part of the Addo Elephant National Park. What makes this area unique are the two islands, St Croix and Bird Island, which are important seabird breeding areas. Until recently, St Croix Island had the biggest penguin population in the world, but recent studies have shown that the colony has decreased by 90% over the last 10 years, while the Bird Island penguin colony has halved in the same time.

Although the growth of this population is influenced by several factors beyond the confines of the island colony, like adequate supplies of forage fish, predation and climatic changes, stabilising or increasing the African Penguin population on these islands is vitally important.

In 2022, Wilderness Foundation Africa joined hands with South African National Parks in an effort to assist with both proactive and reactive interventions, as part of the national Biodiversity Management Plan for penguins, that include ongoing monitoring of the African Penguin and Gape Gannet populations on Bird Island.

Through the financial support from IUCN Save Our Species and co-funded by the European Union,  seven Seabird Monitors were seconded to Addo Elephant National Park in September 2022 for a 12 month period to assist with the following activities: monitoring African Penguin populations to reduce mortalities, monitoring African Penguin nesting success, assisting with rescue and rehabilitation efforts in order to reduce adult and chick mortalities, monitoring Cape gannet breeding success, and where appropriate monitoring Cape Cormorant populations and breeding grounds.

Six months into the year-long support project, the following have been achieved:

  • 81 days of monitoring, 242 foot patrols with no oiled birds detected.
  • 27 African Penguin Adults; 11 African Penguin Blues/juveniles; 13 penguin chicks, 2 Cape Gannet adults, and 3 Cape Gannet chicks taken into rehabilitation and removed to the mainland for further rehabilitation at SANCCOB.
  • 33 African Penguin Adults; 35 African Penguin Blues/juveniles; and one Cape Gannet adult were released back onto Bird Island after rehabilitation.
  • Monitoring of 347 artificial nests and 100 natural nests on Bird Island documenting occupancy of penguin adults, eggs and chicks.
  • Counts of Kelp gulls daily to establish population estimates and impact of predation.
  • No disease outbreaks were detected on Bird Island.
  • 34 Vehicle and foot patrols along Woody Cape shoreline, no sick, diseased or oiled Cormorant birds and/or signs of water contamination (oil spills) detected.

The success of this collaborative project will be determined after counts of penguin breeding pairs are carried out in March / April 2023, which will provide estimates of population growth, decline or stability when compared to previous years. In addition, estimates of breeding success, another key population growth parameter, will be done at the end of the breeding season where the successful breeding of penguins will be evaluated based on the rearing of chicks to the fledging stage. The hope is to see either a stabilisation or increase of this Endangered African Penguin population on Bird Island.


African Penguins released back onto Bird Island after rehabilitation. Photo credit: Peter Bartlett

Seabird Monitors assisting with maintenance on artificial breeding nests on Bird Island. Photo credit: Zamo Lazola

Monitoring of the Cape Gannet population on Bird Island. Photo credit: Peter Bartlett

This publication was produced with the financial support of the European Union through IUCN Save our Species. Its contents are the sole responsibility of Wilderness Foundation Africa and do not necessarily reflect the views of IUCN or the European Union.


 Supported by IUCN Save Our Species, co-funded by the European Union