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Animal Experts Travel to South Africa in Collaborative Effort to Save a Declining Species

By Kylene Plemons and Mike McClure There has been a steady decline of African penguins since the late 1950s when there were around 300,000 individuals in South Africa. In 2001, there were over 100,000 individuals and recently it has been estimated that there are less than 50,000 penguins left in that region. Scientists project an...

By Kylene Plemons and Mike McClure

There has been a steady decline of African penguins since the late 1950s when there were around 300,000 individuals in South Africa. In 2001, there were over 100,000 individuals and recently it has been estimated that there are less than 50,000 penguins left in that region. Scientists project an additional decrease of 17-51 percent over the next 20 years.

Something must be done, which is why experts from SeaWorld and the Maryland Zoo recently traveled to South Africa to help study these endangered African penguins with the goal of tagging and tracking 10 percent of the wild population and 100 percent of all rescued, rehabilitated and released penguins.

This work is just part of one of eight projects included in the SAFE: Saving Animals from Extinction African Penguin Conservation Action Plan and supports the critical conservation needs identified in a well-established African Penguin Biodiversity Management Plan. SAFE, developed by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), is a collaborative conservation approach that combines the power of more than 183 million annual AZA-accredited zoo and aquarium visitors with the resources and collective expertise of AZA members and partners to save animals from extinction.

The team traveled to the Cape of Good Hope, just south of the Boulder Beach colony work.
Penguins exit the water after feeding along the rocky beaches of Stoney Point, South Africa.

In a much needed decision, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service listed African Penguins as an Endangered Species in October 2010. Sadly, it hasn’t been enough and it’s projected that this species can be extinct in the next 10-15 years. 

Human disturbance and egg-collecting have contributed significantly to the species’ decline. Additionally, guano collection (guano is a highly effective fertilizer) has deprived penguins of their natural nest-burrowing sites, causing them to nest on open ground where they are vulnerable to heat stress, flooding and predation. Plus, mortality from oil spills is a significant issue.

Logging field work
Comprehensive photo books are maintained by researchers of the birds that occupy known nests. Photos help identify the correct birds that need to be tagged.
MarylandZoo MMcClure
The Maryland Zoo’s Mike McClure holding the first of many penguins chicks he helped tag on Robben Island, South Africa.

Scientists agree that the best way to approach a study of this difficult topic is to insert passive integrated transponders (a.k.a., PIT tags) under the skin of birds in different breeding colonies to track their movements using hand-held tag readers and passive readers hidden on the ground. These small tags are the same ones used for domestic dogs and cats and allow scientists to gain a better understanding of African penguin longevity, reintroduction survival rates, nest and natal site fidelity, mate fidelity, inter-colony movement patterns, and many other important metrics. This critically important data is much-needed to inform effective management decisions in penguin breeding colonies.

The ‘tagging season’ for African Penguins in the colonies is from April through August.  This is the time that the penguins are molting and or nesting. The rest of the year (September – March), the tagging is done in the rescue and rehabilitation centers when orphaned or injured penguins are brought into the facilities.  Once back to health, the birds are PIT tagged and released.

eaWorld San Diego’s Kylene Plemons with an African Penguin, Robben Island, South Africa.

There are 50 AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums that house African penguins, creating a great opportunity for AZA members (keepers, care staff and veterinarians) to gain experience handling and caring for these animals. With this valuable experience the AZA community is able to help with tagging penguins by sponsoring qualified individuals to travel to South Africa to participate in tagging programs.

On July 20, Mike McClure from the Maryland Zoo and Kylene Plemons from SeaWorld San Diego set out to Cape Town, South Africa for 12 days with African Penguins.  The team visited several penguin rescue and rehabilitation facilities and collected data in three penguin colonies – the Robben Island colony, the Boulder’s Beach colony and the Stony Point colony.

And what better way to hear about the impact of these amazing efforts than from the experts themselves:

Kylene Plemons, Senior Aviculturist, SeaWorld San Diego:

“The first time that I set my eyes on a penguin coming onto the beach from a trip out to sea, I started tearing up.

I talk about conservation to guests on a daily basis and I enjoy informing them about the amazing work being done across the globe to save species like the African penguin. Having the chance to go and be a part of the solution for these animals was simply the opportunity of a lifetime.

Coming back from this trip, my eyes are wide open. I felt invigorated to share what I learned and really get across to people how everybody can make a difference.

The one element that connects us all to penguins and thousands of other species are healthy oceans. To think about that penguin’s journey and what he/she had gone through just to get a meal, divert predators, and make a suitable nest for chicks really put the African penguins’ story into perspective: humans are a major impact.

Not everyone has the opportunity to work directly to save an endangered species, but there are things that all of us can do. If we do our part to protect the environment around us, we can make a huge impact.”

Mike McClure, General Curator, Maryland Zoo in Baltimore:

“Locating penguins in order to gather biological data, samples and inserting Passive Integrated Transponder (PIT) tags in the field at Robben Island was a highlight to our time in South Africa. On Robben, 2 days in the field yielded 51 tagged birds! We were so eager to help the project that   when we spotted more fledglings while leaving, we crawled into the thorn bushes and tagged 2 more! Thanks to the field work and the discussions with Katta Ludynia (field biologist) and Keri-Lee Dobbie (veterinarian), we were able to bring ideas and information back to discuss with members of the AZA SAFE Penguin initiative.

We had productive meetings all across the Western Cape with the people on the front lines of African penguin conservation. One of those people was Monique Ruthenberg, Section Ranger at Boulder’s Beach. Boulder’s attracts over 700,000 visitors a year which creates opportunities for getting the message out about the threats penguins face. The discussion we had focused on AZA experts lending support for interpretive programs at the colony she oversees. “

“We were also able to spend a day with Wilfred Chivell, founder of the Dyer Island Conservation Trust learning about their work at their African Penguin and Seabird Sanctuary (APSS) and on Dyer Island. Saving species really is multifaceted – public awareness and educational opportunities are as vital and challenging as biological conservation.

Finally, we traveled to Stony Point in Betty’s Bay. The penguin colony there is cared for by Cuan Mcgeorge. Cuan works diligently to ensure that the nest sites remain safe for the penguins. Our first encounter with Cuan was for 3 a.m. patrols to prevent predators from entering the colony. We also tagged more penguins and I was able to catch 35 birds. Our final total at Stony Point was 51 tagged penguins — a satisfying conclusion to our work.

The people we met helped us learn more about the penguins and how we can help even at home. This is just the beginning of something that will have positive benefits not only for the penguins, but also for the other wildlife in South Africa.”

To learn more about the work being done to save this endangered species, visit:

SAFE: Saving Animals from Extinction African Penguin Conservation Action Plan

SeaWorld & Busch Gardens Conservation Fund

Maryland Zoo in Baltimore

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