/ 18 April 2024

Killing spree: Honey badger wipes out 11 endangered penguins at Cape reserve

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African penguins. File photo

A honey badger has wreaked havoc at the newly-established De Hoop Nature Reserve African penguin colony in the Western Cape, killing 11 of the endangered seabirds in one fell swoop.

During a routine inspection of the colony late last month, seabird conservationists Christina Hagen and Katta Ludynia made the devastating discovery, finding the remains of 11 African penguins, all killed by a lone honey badger at the nature reserve in the Overberg. 

“It was awful,” recalled Hagen, the Pamela Isdell Fellow of Penguin Conservation at BirdLife South Africa and the project leader, of the grim find. “At first, I was in shock and disbelief. I just couldn’t believe what was happening when we found the first one and then I thought, ‘Oh, that’s a bit odd,’ and we just kept finding more and more. It took a while for the enormity of what had happened to sink in.”

The predation by the honey badger was “unexpected” as it had been thought that the main predators of concern for the colony were leopard and caracal. Hagen had previously spotted honey badgers on the project’s camera traps. 

“I obviously knew that they were around but I didn’t consider that they would be as dangerous to the penguins as it has turned out to be.”

Killing spree

Honey badgers are “notoriously inventive and determined” and it appears as if the animal was able to get through the fence, which was constructed to keep predators away from the headland. 

“As far as I understand, you get these reports of a leopard going into a sheep kraal and just killing …  like a spree,” Hagen said. 

The penguins are naive to land-based predators. 

“These ones were at their nest, so they would have gone into their nest rather than running away to the sea. The honey badger probably got into a kind of a frenzy because it seemed to only eat one of them and the rest it just killed.”

Known to prey on birds, reptiles and small mammals, honey badgers don’t only have a predilection for bee hives as their name suggests. They are also known to kill more than they can eat when they encounter prey — such as domestic chickens or, in this case, penguins — that either cannot escape or are naive to predators. 

While it isn’t obvious exactly how the honey badger entered the colony area, the project team has already started improving the fence in potentially vulnerable areas. 

“We’ve put more electric fencing in place towards the end of the fence — obviously it needs to stop at some point by the sea — and we’ve had issues with high waves, so we’ve kind of reinforced that section,” Hagen said. 

“And then, we’re also reinforcing certain areas where dassies have caused some damage to the fence, so that will be an ongoing process over the next little while.”

In the longer term, she and her colleagues are gathering advice and consulting experts on honey badger behaviour and predator management. 

“Do we build a second fence — all those sorts of things. What other deterrents could we use, like lights or scent, for the honey badger? We’ll build up the best-practice methods and put those in place.”

Meanwhile, the speaker that plays the calls of African penguins and is used to attract penguins to the site is not running “as we do not want to attract additional penguins to the colony if there is the potential for a predator to get in”.

Key site

Conservationists remain resolute in their efforts to conserve the iconic seabirds. 

“We hope that this is a once-off thing that we can learn from and put better measures in place to protect them. We know that it’s possible for the penguins to breed and to want to establish a colony with our help. And so, we are hopeful that more will come,” Hagen added.

Since 2018, BirdLife South Africa, CapeNature and the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (Sanccob) have been working to re-establish a penguin colony in De Hoop

The chosen site is important because there is a good supply of fish for the penguins.

“Mainland sites are not readily colonised because breeding penguins are vulnerable to predation from terrestrial animals, such as leopards, caracals and now, honey badgers,” they said. 

To mitigate this risk, a fence was designed and constructed in consultation with experts on

the behaviour and biology of mammalian predators. Penguins were attracted to the site over several years using penguin decoys and an audio speaker playing penguin calls. More than 200 hand-reared fledgling penguins have been released at the colony.

In 2022, wild penguins arrived at the site and one pair successfully bred. The following year, this increased to four pairs which, between them, raised six chicks. The penguin activity, unfortunately, attracted the attention of the honey badger, which managed to get past or through the fence and to kill the 11 penguins that were present at the colony at the time. 

“There are still others that are there, but I’ve only seen four since then,” Hagen added.

Big setback

The loss of the penguins is a “big setback” to the establishment of the colony, but it is not unprecedented when looking at how other African penguin colonies on the mainland started, the conservation organisations said in a statement. The Stony Point colony at Betty’s Bay experienced several predation events of similar magnitude as the penguins were colonising the area naturally in the 1980s and it is now the third-largest penguin colony in South Africa.

“We are committed to ensuring that we make this a safe breeding space for African penguins,” said Alistair McInnes, seabird conservation programme manager at BirdLife South Africa. “We have shown that it is possible to attract penguins to a site and for them to start breeding. Once the fence improvements and other measures have been put in place, we are confident that more penguins will come.”

Over 200 penguins have been released, after being hand-reared at Sanccob. 

“Some of these birds may still return to the colony when they are ready to breed in a few years,” according to Ludynia, research manager at Sanccob. “We had already started seeing a few of these young birds coming to the colony, likely prospecting for a breeding site.

The numbers of African penguins are at their lowest ever and continue to dwindle. The population has declined from about 1 million pairs 100 years ago to about 9 900 pairs today.

“CapeNature, BirdLife South Africa and Sanccob, along with many other organisations, are working hard to conserve this species,” noted Ashley Naidoo, the chief executive of CapeNature. “We need to do everything we can to ensure their long-term survival and creating new colonies can contribute hugely to those efforts.”