The Dramatic Decline of the African Penguin

Oct 11, 2022 | 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 at 2021). The species is in crisis; if current population trajectories continue, the African penguin will become functionally extinct.

Algoa Bay, situated in the Eastern Cape, is the largest bay in South Africa and a hotspot of biodiversity. Located at the conjuncture of two oceanic systems, the warm Cape Agulhas and the cold upwelling current of the Benguela, the climate and oceanic conditions of the Bay favoured the co-existence of species from two different ecosystems at the edge of their respective distribution, as well as species endemic to the system. Boundaries of species distribution range are particularly important to preserve to allow species to expand their range as climate changes. The bay contains two sets of islands (the St Croix and the Bird Island groups) which are internationally important Bird Areas and home to endangered endemic seabirds, such as the African penguin and the Cape gannet. The islands are part of the Addo Elephant National Park Marine Protected Area (MPA) declared in 2019.

The African Penguin is endemic to southern Africa, with breeding colonies only in Namibia and South Africa. Following a 61% decrease in African penguin populations over 28 years, the species was listed as Endangered by the IUCN in 2010. Since then, the South African population has declined sharply by a further 42%. Until recently, the largest penguin colony in the world occurred in Algoa Bay on St Croix Island. Recent studies have shown that the colony has decreased 90% from 10 years ago, while the Bird Island penguin colony has halved in the same time.

The decline of penguins in Algoa Bay has been caused by several anthropogenic factors, such as climate change induced extreme weather events, with increased temperatures and storm surges affecting penguins while they are breeding on the Islands. Commercial fishing and shifts in the distribution of key fish stocks has resulted in scarcity of anchovies and sardines, essential to a penguin’s diet. This has led to an increase in adult and chick mortality. Studies have also shown that seismic surveys in search for oil or gas under the seabed strongly impact the foraging patterns of African Penguins, and have recommended a precautionary approach to management decisions. Most significantly, however, has been the initiation and expansion of ship-to-ship bunkering in Algoa Bay. In addition to the impact of elevated noise levels from maritime traffic, four oil spills have occurred in the Bay as a direct result of bunkering since 2016, with the most recent being in May 2022.

Having identified the threats to the African Penguin, the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and Environment (DFFE) published their 2015-2019 African Penguin Biodiversity Management Plan (BMP) which outlined various national management actions and responses; however, declines have continued. As such, DFFE recently published a draft review of the African Penguin BMP for the continuation of modified and ongoing actions and consideration of new actions that aim to address emerging threats. The actions and threats include improving where possible access to available food for African penguins, population models to assess multiple threats on African penguins, reviewing the implementation and monitoring of predation management, at-sea threats, human-induced stresses, and the mitigation intervention on management processes implemented for ship-to-ship bunkering among others.

The African Penguin is a flagship species, an indicator of health of the ecosystem, and with this alarming decrease and low numbers the entire marine ecosystem is also in danger. With this in mind, preventing the extinction of this flagship species will require urgent and considered intervention, and close monitoring of the remaining colonies.

Wilderness Foundation Africa recently expanded its Forever Wild Programme to include a new initiative, the Forever Wild African Penguin Conservation Initiative. Under this banner the Foundation launched a new project aimed at enabling the continuation of monitoring and appropriate management of threatened seabirds, particularly the declining populations of African Penguin and Cape Cormorant, in the Addo Elephant National Park MPA.

This 12 month long project, supported by IUCN Save Our Species and co-funded by European Union  is providing additional capacity at Bird Island and along the Woody Cape coastline of the Marine Protected area. The seven seabird monitors employed are assisting with monitoring, enforcement and appropriate management responses to support conservation of the African Penguin and Cape Cormorant populations. Activities supported include patrols, data collection and rescue activities for injured, malnourished or oiled African Penguins and Cape Cormorants, patrols for dead birds, sightings of live birds and enforcement activities.

This publication initially featured in the Lalasini Digital Online Magazine. 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.