Wildlife officials release penguins off Robben Island

Robben Island’s rocky, windswept shores and the Atlantic’s expanses were intimidating for a penguin after weeks of pens and pools.

So, when dozens of the birds abandoned as chicks by their parents and raised by humans were released back into the wild on Wednesday, most at first huddled nervously together in the frigid waters. One even tried to jump back into the cardboard box in which it had been carried to the island. But they rapidly grew used to freedom and swam off.

“African penguins are tough little birds,” said conservationist Alan Jardine.

Jardine’s South African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds, which rescued about 800 chicks in October, took about 60 of the birds to the waters around Robben Island, Nelson Mandela’s former prison and now home to a large colony of African penguins.

Most of the others were already back in the sea as part of a drive by the conservation group to boost fragile populations of the bird, whose survival is threatened by oil spills and dwindling fish stocks.

On Tuesday, the penguins were taken to the island on a tourist boat and released with little ceremony three at a time from cardboard boxes.
Jardine said the foundation hoped to free another batch of the remaining 100 penguins on Wednesday.

“We are hoping they can be released on to the island for Christmas,” said Jardine. “That would be such a lovely event.”

The baby penguins were abandoned when their parents began to lose their feathers earlier than usual. During the moulting process, the penguins’ skin is not waterproof, and so it cannot swim, fish or feed its chicks.

At the start, volunteers tube-fed the chicks and then progressed to two feeds a day of four to six fish. The penguins were raised in pens equipped with ramps leading to pools of various sizes. The birds were periodically “herded like sheep into the water”, Jardine said. They were deemed ready for release once they were comfortable in the biggest pool and met criteria in such areas as weight, swimming ability and waterproofing.

Each was tagged to help monitor its subsequent movements, but the volunteers did not give the penguins names. Jardine said they were too professional to get attached.

“You need someone to be passionate about it,” said Jardine, who comes from a family of zookeepers. “But you have to know when it’s time to say goodbye. We are very fortunate to have passionate and dedicated, but also knowledgeable and understanding, staff.”

The bird foundation collects abandoned chicks every year -‒ as well as cleaning and rehabilitating penguins whose feathers are covered in oil—but this year’s operation was the biggest to date, said Jardine.

He said he hoped some of the costs could be recovered by the popular Adopt-A-Penguin programme. Visitors to the foundation’s website can sign up to pay R500 ($72) and in return receive a photograph of their penguin and certificate.

The African, or Jackass penguin has become a popular Cape Town tourist attraction. Thousands of visitors flock to the sheltered sands of Boulders Beach, near the naval base of Simon’s Town, to swim and sunbathe with their feathered friends.

It is smaller than the Emperor Penguin of the Antarctic -‒ as featured in the box office hit Happy Feet but just as endearing.

Clumsy on land, penguins are fast and agile in water.

The species is now classed as “vulnerable” because its numbers have been decimated in the past century, first by poaching of the eggs, then by oil spills and—increasingly—shortage of its staple diet of sardines and anchovies.

The population off the coasts of South Africa and Namibia has been slashed from 1,5-million breeding pairs in 1930 to around 50 000 breeding pairs today, and the numbers are decreasing every year, according to Les Underhill, the director of Cape Town University’s Avian Demography Unit.

Conservationists reintroduced the penguins to Robben Island in 1984, 200 years after they were wiped out by settlers. The remote island off Cape Town is notorious as the prison where former South Africa president Nelson Mandela and other anti-apartheid leaders were held. But it is also teems with birds and has the world’s second biggest African penguin colony, with an estimated 5 000 breeding pairs and 20 000 birds in total, according to Underhill.

Underhill said that even after Tuesday’s release, the penguins faced a struggle for survival, most notably against the island’s seals who are ruthless competitors for fish.

Underhill said he hoped the penguin-mania generated by Happy Feet and the March of the Penguins documentary would boost the

cause of conservation. ‒ Sapa-AP

Client Media Releases

Changes at MBDA already producing the fruits
University open days: Look beyond banners, balloons to make the best choice
ITWeb, VMware second CISO survey under way
Doctoral study on leveraging the green economy
NWU's LLB degree receives full accreditation