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Last updated on April 24, 2014 at 17:35 EDT

Rescuers Aid Orphaned African Penguin Chicks

October 30, 2008

Rescuers have gone to the relief of African penguin chicks orphaned and in danger of starving to death in colonies around the Western Cape coastline of South Africa.

Yesterday, in a mercy mission to Dyer Island, officials rescued an initial 35 chicks and more will likely be collected from the island in the coming days. Dyer Island, situated about eight kilometres (5 miles) offshore from Gansbaai in the Western Cape, is an important breeding colony for about 4,000 African penguins.

The rescue forms part of the “Chick Bolstering Project” which is being supported by the International Fund for Animal Welfare in partnership with the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB), and other conservation groups.

“The ‘Chick Bolstering Project’ is an important intervention that will save the lives of a great many penguin chicks that are abandoned by their parents towards the end of the annual breeding season,” said Jason Bell-Leask, Director Southern Africa of IFAW.

“African penguin numbers are in rapid decline and the bird appears on the IUCN red list, so this very innovative project which rescues and rehabilitates chicks to make them fit and strong enough to be returned to the wild where they can join the breeding population is to be applauded and supported.”

Earlier this year, SANCCOB which is the world’s most successful sea bird rehabilitation centre and IFAW signed an agreement to ensure the centre’s future.

The rescued chicks will be hand reared at SANCCOB’s specialist penguin rehabilitation centre in Cape Town over the next three months, before being released back into their home colonies.

On several penguin colonies, including Dyer Island and Stoney Point near Betty’s Bay, chicks that hatch late in the season (from September onwards) are frequently abandoned by their parents when the weather grows warmer and as food supplies diminish.

These chicks are unlikely to survive if left in the wild, and the problem is exacerbated by the fact that adult penguins begin their annual molt at this time of the year. During molting the penguins shed their old feathers and grow new ones, leaving them not waterproof and therefore unable to swim, catch fish and unable to feed their chicks.

In the coming three months SANCCOB’s team of dedicated staff and volunteers will have their work cut out feeding the ravenous youngsters, the smallest of which will have to be fed and hydrated every three hours. In addition to fish, the penguins get a daily dose of a special fish formula.

Venessa Strauss, Chief Executive Officer of SANCCOB, said the phenomenon of adult African penguins abandoning their young is not unusual.

“In 2006, SANCCOB reared 841 orphaned chicks and last year another 481 needed our help. More than 80 percent of the rescued chicks were released back into the wild to start contributing to the breeding population in the next couple of years.

“Our research shows that hand rearing African penguins has a significant effect on conserving the wild population, with hand reared and released chicks showing higher survivorship to breeding age and higher productivity than birds that fledge naturally in the wild,” said Strauss.

Numbers of African penguins have shown a catastrophic decline in recent years. In 2008, the African penguin population reached an all-time low of 26,000 breeding pairs down from an estimated two-million pairs at the turn of the 20th Century.

“This makes each individual chick very precious to our efforts to conserve this already vulnerable species and research conducted by the Fitzpatrick Institute of the University of Cape Town found that the African penguin population is 19 percent higher today thanks to SANCCOB’s rehabilitation efforts,” said Strauss.

Other conservation role players involved in addressing the catastrophic decline in African penguin numbers by initiating the “Chick Bolstering Project” include Bristol Zoo Gardens, the Animal Demography Unit at the University of Cape Town, CapeNature, Dyer Island Conservation Trust and Marine and Coastal Management.

Image Courtesy Wikipedia

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