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The Last of the African Penguins

With its tuxedo plumage and clumsy, waddling gait, the African penguin, spheniscus demersus, has long been an iconic presence at the southern tip of Africa. In past centuries, it is thought that penguins were the country's most numerous seabird, with a population numbering in the millions. They thrived here at the confluence of the Atlantic and Indian Oceans largely due to a current known as the Benguela upwelling that brought nutrients to the surface and supported one of the world's richest marine ecosystems. Yet over the past hundred years their numbers have plunged disastrously. In 2019, a census counted only 13,300 breeding pairs in the whole of South Africa, just 2% of the population that existed here in the past. In 2010, the species was declared endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and scientists now predict the species could become functionally extinct in the wild within the next 15 years.

Until the middle of the 19th century, the penguins suffered from the collection of millions of their eggs for human consumption, as well as from the loss of the 'guano' in which they built their underground nests, which was removed from the breeding islands and sold in huge quantities as an agricultural fertiliser. Since these threats eased, others have emerged, with oil spills, pollution and diseases like avian malaria and bird flu all taking their toll. The penguins have also been hit by dwindling numbers of sardines and anchovies which form the bulk of their diet but are also targeted by the country's purse seine fishing industry. The changing climate too has had an impact on the penguins, with nesting birds being forced to abandon their eggs and chicks and return to the water during heatwaves to avoid overheating.

In response, a huge operation is underway to save the species. Penguin sanctuaries are taking in and feeding hundreds of chicks each year and seabird hospitals are working on overdrive in an effort to keep each and every bird alive and healthy. In Cape Town, a hatchery is hand-rearing newborn chicks for release into the wild, and conservationists are lobbying the country's department of fisheries to create no-take-zones around the breeding islands. In the breeding colonies, conservation groups are providing artificial nesting boxes to replace the lost guano, and there has even been a plan mooted to set up mist sprayers to cool the birds down during heatwaves.

In the meantime, an alarm system has been put in place to trigger an egg evacuation warning when temperatures peak. Earlier this year, an entire new colony was set up by Birdlife South Africa in a last ditch effort to boost numbers. But despite everything, the penguin population continues to crumble: for now, the fate of one of South Africa's best loved and most iconic species hangs in the balance.
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