Decline of African Penguins in South Africa
15 July 2015
The Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) has noted the recent media reports regarding the decline in population numbers of the African Penguin, due to lack of food.
In 2010, the DEA, CapeNature (CN), together with South African National Parks (SANParks) and other interested parties, initiated the development of a “Biodiversity Management Plan for the African Penguin Spheniscus demersus” (BMP-AP) in terms of the National Environmental Management: Biodiversity Act of 2004.
This plan was finalised and published in the Government Gazette in 2013. The plan aims to address the decline of the African Penguin population in South Africa and to halt the decrease. DEA is responsible for the plan and appointed a steering committee to oversee its implementation in 2014. Furthermore, the implementation of the African Penguin BMP is supported by three Working Groups comprising of management authorities, academia, research institutions, NGO’s such as BirdLife, and rehabilitation centres, captive institutions and the National Zoological Gardens to mention a few. Monitoring of African penguins is undertaken by management authorities including DEA, CN and SANParks.
The decreases in numbers have been particularly severe in the north region of Cape Town, where numbers decreased by 90% in the eleven-year period 2004–2015, with a loss of 30,000 pairs. Heavy losses were recorded at Dassen and Robben islands where adult survival rates decreased substantially. These decreases were influenced by displacements to the Southeast of the main prey of African penguins (sardine and anchovy), which brought about a mismatch in the distributions of prey and the northwest breeding localities, and by a large decrease in sardine biomass. The impact of an altered distribution of prey may have been exacerbated by fishing in the vicinity of the Western penguin colonies.
As such in South Africa, numbers of African penguins collapsed in the early 21st century. In 2001, an estimated 56,000 pairs bred, which were subsequently reduced to 19,000 pairs (65%) in 2012.
Furthermore, the African penguin is now classified as Endangered in terms of the criteria of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Numbers of African penguins in the Eastern Cape have been stable since 2003, whereas numbers between Cape Point and Cape Agulhas have increased slightly in recent years
The African penguin is endemic to Southern Africa (breeding only in South Africa and Namibia) and it is Africa’s only extant penguin (excluding the four species that breed at South Africa’s Prince Edward Islands in the South-West Indian Ocean).
The department would like to stress that BMP-AP considers all threats to penguins including food availability and has several objectives that are being implemented in collaboration with relevant agencies. Amongst these are securing the protected status of all extant African penguin colonies, including those not currently formally protected, considering establishment of new breeding sites closer to the present availability of food, and ensuring an adequate abundance of prey for penguins at existing colonies.
In conclusion the apparent stabilisation of the population over the last four years is encouraging, but should not be interpreted as an indication that the long term decline has definitely ended. The Department is grateful to the various organisations and individuals that are assisting with implementation of the management plan.
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