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The African penguin is on the Association of Zoos and Aquarium’s top 10 list of endangered animals in need of immediate and intensive conservation measures.

Even before AZA included the 2-foot-tall penguins that bray like a donkey in its SAFE (Saving Animals From Extinction) program, which is supported by Shedd Aquarium and 231 other AZA-member organizations, we were working side by side with South African conservationists to keep these birds afloat.

The only penguin species native to the African continent, it was once one of southern Africa’s most abundant seabirds, with more than 1 million breeding pairs colonizing offshore islands and a few coastal sites. Today populations are at less than 2.5 percent of that level and in continuing rapid decline.

An African penguin chick, covered in soft down, waits for its turn to eat at SANCCOB Seabird Centre in Cape Town.
A crowd of African penguins congregate by the edge of one of SANCCOB's holding pools, peacefully basking in the afternoon sun.

Bolstering rescued chicks

Beyond our AZA SAFE commitment, Shedd is offering hands-on help to this species in need. In December and January, members of Shedd’s Animal Response Team, sponsored by Dawn, were in Cape Town, where they helped the staff of the South African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds, or SANCCOB, rehabilitate some of the 500 starving African penguin chicks filling the rescue facility. The young birds had been abandoned by their parents during the October-to-December breeding season.

This was the fourth year that Shedd has responded to the annual mass abandonment by sending trainers experienced with our Magellanic penguins, close relatives of the African species, as well as other members of the Animal Care team. Between December and January, Kurt Heizmann, assistant supervisor of marine mammals, trainer Tracy Smith and animal care specialist Laura Reichert each did a demanding two-week stint at SANCCOB.

Their roles at the rescue center’s Chick Bolstering Project involved long shifts hand-feeding chicks as often as six times a day, helping administer medications, cleaning pens and pools, overseeing swimming lessons and washing equipment. The unglamorous work, at the peak of the South African summer, requires gear like heavy gloves, chest waders and rubber boots to protect caregivers from either end of the birds. But it has rich rewards.

“I was able to take the skills I’ve learned at Shedd and make a difference for a species that is in desperate need,” Tracy says. “I helped care for hundreds of penguins that wouldn’t have been able to survive without SANCCOB, and I learned so much at the same time.”

“Getting a chance to help save an endangered species is one of the greatest opportunities I have ever had,” says Kurt. “Seeing those animals in need was great motivation to put in those long, strenuous hours. The greatest reward was getting the chance to release dozens of African penguins back into the wild to rejoin the colony at Stony Point.”

A member of Shedd's Animal Response Team sits in an exam room wearing a green plastic smock and holding a fluffy penguin chick, its wings spread for balance as it sits in his lab waiting to be examined.
Staff member Kurt Heizmann works with SANCCOB Seabird Centre experts in Cape Town, Africa, caring for fluffy Magellanic penguin chicks.

“Seeing those animals in need was great motivation to put in those long, strenuous hours. The greatest reward was getting the chance to release dozens of African penguins back into the wild to rejoin the colony at Stony Point.”

Kurt Heizmann, supervisor of sea lions and birds of prey

“The dedication and hard work of the SANCCOB staff demonstrated a deep appreciation of not only the African penguins, but all seabirds, and how important they are to their country,” Laura adds. “The positive impact that SANCCOB has made on the African penguin population is inspirational and a reminder of how important our rescue and rehabilitation efforts at Shedd are.”

Shedd forged a formal partnership with the not-for-profit seabird rescue center in 2014, but our connection goes back to August 2000, when we responded to SANCCOB’S international SOS for assistance after a catastrophic oil spill near the penguins’ feeding and breeding grounds. Of the 20,000 oiled birds taken in, nearly 18,000 were cleaned, rehabilitated and released.

The likelihood of another major oil spill, as dozens of oil rigs are built near the most populated breeding colonies, still clouds their future. But it’s the year-after-year mass chick abandonment that has sent the already jeopardized species spiraling toward extinction.

Two mature African penguins sit atop a rock in Cape Town, Africa, touching necks.

Why the parents leave

The crisis that spurs SANCCOB’s massive and well-organized Chick Bolstering Project is the result of human activities that have disrupted an eons-old internal rhythm for nesting, chick-rearing, molting and returning to the sea.

South Africa’s penguins begin breeding in March or April, but increasingly the first nests fail. Scientists cite scarcity of food for the birds’ poor condition, both for producing eggs and caring for young. Decades of commercial overfishing have drastically reduced the penguins’ main diet of sardines and anchovies, leaving them less nutritious prey. In addition, some fish stocks have shifted to different waters, making the penguins swim farther for what food is available.

Like many other bird species, the penguins can renest the same season. But by the time the chicks hatch, beginning in October, the parents are going into molt. While they are shedding all their old waterproof feathers and growing new ones, they can’t hunt in the ocean for food for the chicks. And as the season changes, the time comes for the adults to move on, whether the chicks have fledged or not. Without SANCCOB’s intervention, this second nesting, and the year’s breeding season, would fail.

During the 2016-2017 season, SANCCOB experts noted that the rescued chicks were much younger than in previous years—many were only 5 days old—requiring a longer, more intensive, more expensive rehabilitation. Shedd is among seven AZA-accredited aquariums and zoos committed to making the yearly trek to South Africa to help the chicks. In 2015, thanks to their help, 85 percent of the 500 or so rescued chicks were successfully reared and released.

African penguin chicks, their waterproof adult feathers coming in under their baby down and giving them a patchy appearance, crowd together at SANCCOB Seabird Centre in Cape Town, Africa.
African penguins crowd together along the coast of Cape Town, Africa, the rocky shore stained white by their guano.

A long history of man-made problems

Chick abandonment is a relatively recent phenomenon. Past human activities also threatened—and in part continue to affect—the survival of African penguins when they are most vulnerable: in the egg and in the nest. Beginning in the early 20th century, egg hunters decimated nesting colonies each year to supply the lucrative South African and European markets for the seasonal delicacy.

The birds produced another valuable commodity: guano. Rich in nitrogen, phosphate and potassium, penguin droppings were so sought after for fertilizer in a still mainly agrarian world that they were known as “white gold.” Guano accumulated in vast quantities—mountains of it—atop islands where millions of seabirds like penguins roosted, nested and pooped.

“The dedication and hard work of the SANCCOB staff demonstrated a deep appreciation of not only the African penguins, but all seabirds, and how important they are to their country.”

Laura Reichert, animal care specialist

But African penguins already put the guano to use, burrowing into it to nest. The thick, stable material maintained a moderate temperature, was above flood level and also protected the nesting birds and chicks from predators—except for one. The mining of nearly 2 million tons of guano from African penguin colonies between 1841 and 1983 destroyed their nesting habitat and accounted for many adult and chick fatalities as well.

By the time commercial egg hunting and guano mining were finally abolished at the end of the last century, African penguin populations were already in trouble. 1988, the International Union for Conservation of Nature listed the birds as threatened. By 2010 the species was evaluated as endangered.

African penguin chicks, their waterproof adult feathers coming in under their baby down and giving them a patchy appearance, crowd together at SANCCOB Seabird Centre in Cape Town, Africa.

Helping the chicks before they hatch

Since the beginnning of the Chick Bolstering Project in 2006, SANCCOB with its partner organizations has successfully hand-raised and released 4,356 chicks. Still, SANCCOB rescuers are not optimistic about the penguin’s long-term survival and advise that a combination of interventions are needed to turn around the negative population trend for the species.

AZA wants to get ahead of the problem with its new “Invest in the Nest: Saving Penguins from Extinction” initiative. It has researched and developed an artificial penguin nest that replicates the insulating and protective qualities of the long-gone natural guano nests. The special material used to make the nests cannot be molded on a machine, so each one must be made by hand by local South African craftspeople.

Karen Furnweger, web editor