/ 17 June 2010

Eastern Cape penguins freeze to death

Extreme cold, wind and heavy rain has killed 600 African penguin chicks on Bird Island, a reserve in Algoa Bay near Port Elizabeth.

The 19-hectare island is administered by South African National Parks as part of the Addo Elephant National Park.

“Penguin chicks started dying on Tuesday, when extremely cold weather, coupled with strong winds and heavy rainfall hit the Eastern Cape,” said SANParks regional communications manager Megan Taplin.

The number of chicks that had died had risen to 600 by Thursday morning.

Data from a weather station on the island showed temperatures over the past three days ranged between 8,8 and 12°C, with wind speeds gusting up to 95km/h.

“The total rainfall for the three days was 63,2mm, which is an abnormally high amount for this area at this time of year.

“Park rangers stationed on the island used all means possible to alleviate the situation in the absence of assistance from land due to rough seas.

“They provided temporary shelters for penguin chicks using materials on the island, and also drained penguin nests of excess water where possible,” she said.

Asked how the penguins had died of cold, when their Antarctic cousins survive long winters and sub-zero conditions, Taplin said African penguins did not shelter their chicks in the same way as those down south.

“Although the penguins do live in burrows, some stand out in the open next to the adults. The chicks are between a few weeks and two months old, and have only a down-feather covering, and when they get wet they die of hypothermia caused by wind chill.”

“The recent drought in the Eastern Cape means the island’s vegetation, which would usually offer some protection, is now sparser than usual.”

When the weather cleared on Thursday morning, rangers had used a helicopter to airlift two injured adult penguins and five abandoned chicks to Port Elizabeth.

“They will be taken to a specialised penguin rehabilitation centre for treatment. Rangers will assess the situation on Bird Island again tomorrow [Friday], when they are able to reach the island by boat.

“A decision will then be taken on whether to evacuate more penguin chicks for rehabilitation.”

Taplin said the death of penguin chicks due to extreme weather was a naturally-occurring phenomenon, and one in which SANParks did not usually interfere.

“In this instance, however, the number of chick deaths was higher than usual. The African penguin is classified as an endangered species, so we took action,” she said.

There are about 700 African penguin breeding pairs on Bird Island.

Penguin chicks on nearby St Croix Island were minimally affected by the recent weather, with only 19 deaths recorded.

SANParks say the island’s conical shape — unlike Bird Island’s relatively flat topography — ensured a quick run-off of rainwater. – Sapa