By Guy Rogers
WE HEAR about the catastrophe of disappearing species all over the world. Well – we have one vanishing right here in our own front yard. Fifty years ago, BirdLife South Africa seabird division manager Dr Ross Wanless notes, there were 140000 breeding pairs of African penguins on Earth.
A decade ago, numbers had dropped to 45000 pairs. Today, there are 25000 pairs left. From 50 years ago – that’s a drop of 82%.
There are 17 penguin species on the planet, with only one in the northern hemisphere, on the Galapagos Islands, in the equatorial Pacific. The remainder are all in the southern hemisphere. But Africa’s only penguin is the African penguin, which is now officially classified as endangered.
The species lives in a coastal band from Namibia’s Walvis Bay in the west, round to our Algoa Bay in the east. And the biggest colony, totaling 10000 pairs, live here, on our Bird and St Croix islands.
Like the rhino, another flagship species under grave threat, the African penguin has few natural predators. As BirdLife penguin specialist Christina Moseley notes, even sharks and orcas don’t usually prey on them.
Kelp gulls do feed on penguin chicks and eggs, and there is the phenomenon at Dyer Island near Hermanus where seals are attacking penguins, tearing open their stomachs, apparently to get to the anchovy and sardines that they both eat. But other than that, remarkably, our penguin has few natural enemies.
However, it is those little pelagic fish that are thought to be key in the African penguin’s decline. Because mankind also desires them.
So much so that, with insufficient restraints in the 1960s, we over-fished the west coast, where most of these fish historically were. By the mid-nineties, the remaining stocks had started to migrate around to the south coast to escape this uncontrolled plunder.
What is needed now, says Moseley, is special planning to ensure that, while purse-seining (the drawstring netting method they use) may continue in these new waters – select areas will be protected, allowing the fish, the penguins and the purse-seiners to sustain themselves alongside one another.
The good news is that negotiations around this move are advancing, and it should be implemented by next year.
But will this be the turning point for the African penguin, or is the food issue only part of the reason for their collapse? Is there anything else we are doing, directly in the form of pollution or indirectly via climate change (driven by our greenhouse gas emissions) that is causing their decline?
We aren’t sure, Moseley admits, and we cannot afford to put all our penguin eggs in one basket. So more information is needed, urgently.
Part of the reason for Dave Chamberlain’s amazing mega-run was to raise funds for Birdlife studies which are aimed precisely at acquiring more of this vitally-needed information. Donors can go to www.birdlife.org.za/support-us/donate
Representing his Vidamago (Spanish for "life magician”) Foundation, Chamberlain, 36, ran 2700km in three and a half months, his daily regime ranging from 18km to 85km, tracking the distribution of the African penguin.
Arriving last week (January 30 3013) in The Friendly City, lean as a stick of biltong – he didn’t even have a blister. So no need for the Mr Man waterproof plasters he was carrying (his only nod to a medical aid kit), he laughed.
Water scarcity was the biggest challenge as he made his way down the parched Namibian coast. To overcome it, he had to sacrifice solid foods for the latest liquid diet nutrition technology. It got him through, "but the lack of having something to chew for seven weeks was a bit of a mind-bender”, he admits.
The best thing about the run was meeting a whole bunch of people with extraordinary stories and experiences, he says, like Ousus Ben from Garies, who matriculated at the age of 69, and Oom Tobi and his Namaqualaland band Unity, who ended up making the 900km round trek to Yzerfontein, to play at Dave’s sister’s wedding.
But it was the way that the parts and the whole fitted together which also struck him, he says.
"A sunset’s beauty wasn’t just the colour in the sky but also the smells of the desert sand, the sounds of faraway birds, the feel of the wind. It was a sensory inundation that gets lost in the mess of city living.”
Besides raising funds, Dave’s hope is that his run will increase pressure on the authorities to extend the Bird Island marine protected area to include St Croix, and that ordinary people will think and act on the awareness he has raised of the plight of the African penguin.