African Penguin

The African Penguin (Spheniscus demersus) is also known as the Jackass Penguin (after its donkey-like braying call). This penguin can be found on the south-western coast of Africa, living in colonies on 24 islands between Namibia and Algoa Bay, near Port Elizabeth, South Africa, with the largest colony on Dyer Island, near Kleinbaai. Two colonies were established by penguins in the 1980s on the mainland near Cape Town at Boulders Beach near Simon’s Town and Stony Point in Betty’s Bay. Mainland colonies probably only became possible in recent times due the reduction of predator numbers, although the Betty’s Bay colony has been attacked by leopards. The only other mainland colony is in Namibia, but it is not known when this was established.

The closest relatives of the African Penguins are the Humboldt and Magellanic penguins found in southern South America, as well as the Galápagos Penguin found in the Pacific Ocean near the equator. African Penguins like warm weather.

African Penguins grow to 50 cm tall and weigh between 2 and 4 kg. They have a black stripe and black spots on the chest, the spots being unique for every penguin, just like human fingerprints. They have pink sweat glands above their eyes and the hotter the penguin gets, the more blood is sent to these sweat glands so it may be cooled by the surrounding air, thus making the glands pinker. The males are larger than the females and have larger beaks.

They breed throughout the year, with the main breeding season starting in February. Females will lay two eggs, and incubation lasts for a period of 38-42 days. They are a monogamous species and the lifelong partners take turns to incubate their eggs and feed their young. The moulting season is between October and February, with the majority of the birds moulting in November and December, after which they head out to sea to feed (since they do not feed during moulting season and remain on land). Their diet includes small fish such as sardines and anchovies. The penguins obtain water from the fish they eat.

African Penguins have an average lifespan of 10-11 years, the females reaching sexual maturity at the age of 4 years, and males at the age of 5 years. The highest recorded age for a bird of this species has been 24 years. The overall population of the species has fallen by some 90% during the last 10 years, the current population (as of 2003) estimated at 179 000 adults, with 56 000 breeding pairs.

As recently as the mid-twentieth century, penguin eggs were considered a delicacy and were still being collected for sale. Unfortunately, the practice was to smash any eggs found a few days prior to gathering, in order to ensure that only fresh ones were sold. This added to the drastic decline of the penguin population around the Cape coast, a decline which was hastened by the removal of guano from islands for use as fertilizer, eliminating the burrowing material used by penguins. Penguins remain susceptible to pollution of their habitat by petrochemicals from spills, shipwrecks and cleaning of tankers while at sea.