Above: Dassen island
Article submitted by Leshia Visagie | Photographs: Leshia Visagie
With the African penguin (Spheniscus demersus) population in distress, all measures must be taken to save the species. The numbers of breeding pairs have dropped so severely that the African penguin was recently reclassified from Vulnerable to Endangered. The Yzerfontein community recently came together to do their bit for the Dassen Island penguins.
Dassen Island. situated 9 km from Yzerfontein , is one of the larger breeding colonies of African penguins. The numbers dropped from close to 25 000 breeding pairs in 2004 to less than 4 000 breeding pairs in 2011.
The island is a proclaimed Provincial Nature Reserve and is being managed by Cape Nature as a disturbance-free breeding habitat for several seabirds and shorebirds.
Injured penguins and orphaned chicks are collected on a regular basis by CapeNature staff on the island. There is not a suitable rehabilitation/stabilization facility on the island and at the moment the birds are treated in an old building with no adequate equipment.
An adequately equipped sickbay is needed to stabilize and feed the birds until they can be released or transported to the South African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB), the seabird rehabilitation centre in Tableview.
The Yzerfontein community started a fundraising campaign to get enough money for the sickbay. In October a “Pik ‘n Wyntjie” dance was held in the community hall.
Die Stal Restaurant had a wine-tasting and braai evening to raise funds for this purpose and they plan to make it an annual event.
There were stalls with fresh fruit juice and homemade cheese. Johan Visagie , the Conservation manager of Dassen Island, gave a presentation and had everybody’s attention when he mentioned the shocking decrease in numbers of breeding penguins on the island.
Above: More evidence of the decreasing penguin population on Dassen Island. House bay circa 1970’s (left) and the dame bay in 2011 (right)
Johan Visagie, Dassen Island conservation manager, explaining the alarming decrease in the penguin population to a captive audience, and receiving a generous donation from the Yzerfontein community after the fundraising event and auction.
The guests of honour were Colombine (an African Penguin) and Rocci (a Northern Rockhopper Penguin) and guests could meet them “in person”.
During the evening a few items were auctioned by Andre Kirsten and he did a great job to open the moneybags of the guests. Wine, bird books and photographs (taken by J & L.Visagie) were sold. Thanks to Carine and Gary it was a very successful evening and R20 000 was raised. The funds are kept in an account at SANCCOB until enough funds has been raised to start the process of establishing the Dassen Island Penguin Clinic.
African Penguin Fact Sheet
HEIGHT: 68-70 cm tall
WEIGHT: Between 2 and 5 kg
CHARACTERISTICS: A black stripe and black spots on the chest. The pattern of spots is unique for every penguin, like human fingerprints . Pink glands above their eyes, used for cooling their blood. The hotter the penguin gets, the more blood is sent to these glands so it may be cooled by the surrounding air, thus making the glands more pink. Males are larger than the females and have larger beaks. Their distinctive black and white colouring is a vital form of camouflage – white for underwater predators looking upwards and black for predators looking down onto the dark water.
FEEDING HABITS: Forage in the open sea for fish, such as pilchards and anchovies, and marine invertebrates such as squid.
PREDATORS: In the water, these include sharks, cape fur seals and, on occasion, orcas. On land these include mongoose, genet, domestic cats and dogs – and the kelp gulls which steal their eggs and newborn chicks.
DISTRIBUTION : The African penguin is found on the south western coast of Africa, living in colonies on 24 islands between Namibia and Algoa Bay, near Port Elizabeth, South Africa. It is also known as the Jackass penguin for its donkey like bray, although several species of South American penguins produce the same sound. It is the only penguin species that breeds in Africa and its presence gave name to the Penguin Islands.
THREATS: Much of the original declines in population were due to over-collection of eggs for food, but today the greatest threat comes from a lack of food due to overfishing local fish stocks. The real risk of oil pollution is also a threat.
Commercial fisheries have forced these penguins to search for prey farther off shore , as well as making them eat less nutritious prey, since their preferred prey has become scarce . Global climate change is also affecting these penguins’ prey abundance .
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 eggs found a few days prior to gathering, 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.
DID YOU KNOW?
Disaster struck on 23 June 2000, when the iron ore tanker MV Treasure sank between Robben Island and Dassen Island, South Africa, oiling 19,000 adult penguins at the height of the best breeding season on record for this vulnerable species.
The oiled birds were brought to an abandoned train repair warehouse in Cape Town to be cared for. An additional 19,500 un-oiled penguins were removed from Dassen Island and other areas before they became oiled, and were released about 800 kilometres east of Cape Town, near Port Elizabeth. This gave workers enough time to clean up the oiled waters and shores before the birds could complete their long swim home (which took the penguins between 1 and 3 weeks). Some of the penguins were named and radio-tracked as they swam back to their breeding grounds.
Tens of thousands of volunteers descended upon Cape Town to help with the rescue and rehabilitation process, which was overseen by IFAW (International Fund for Animal Welfare) and the South African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB), and took more than three months to complete. This was the largest animal rescue event in history; more than 91% of the penguins were successfully rehabilitated and released – an amazing feat that could not have been accomplished without such a tremendous international response.
If you want to donate money towards this project, please contact Leshia at 0824479302 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
You can also deposit money in SANCCOB’s account, but please use the reference DASSEN ISLAND FUND.
Account holder: SANCCOB
Current Account No.: 59237135859
Reference: Dassen Island Fund