by Anthony Nelson
Starting my career as an animal keeper, penguins were the last animal I wanted to work with. As fate would have it, the African Penguins were the only species needing a “primary” keeper at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, and so began my connection to these ridiculous birds.
There are around 18 species of penguins (some debate exists on the exact number), but the African Penguin is the only species that lives and breeds in Africa. With numbers that used to be in the millions, these birds have experienced huge difficulties resulting in less than 20,000 breeding pairs in 2019. The islands they once primarily inhabited were scraped for their guano (feces) throughout the early-mid 20th century, robbing the penguins of their nesting material. This guano was sold as fertilizer. Their eggs also became a local delicacy, and those collecting them would go out a few days beforehand and smash eggs. This would ensure they only served fresh eggs.
While guano harvesting is no longer a primary threat, new ones have emerged. I’d love to write a great underdog story about the African Penguin, but victory is far from reality. Human conflicts have not ceased. Along the southern rim of Africa, the fish populations are being devastated by overfishing. This is causing the penguins to swim further and further away from the shore to find fish, which is exhausting valuable energy and time. Breeding pairs will switch off sitting on the eggs while the other parent goes searching for food. With the duration of time increasing between feedings and the general decline in caloric intake, eggs are being abandoned by starving parents that can’t wait any longer for their mate to return. The fisherman also sees the penguins as competition, and there have been stories of fishermen trying to run penguins over as they launch their boats or chasing them around on shore.
In the 21st century, these penguins are facing a new threat; the selfie threat. To explain, you need a little background information. African penguins molt their feathers once a year, and healthy individuals should be within a few days of molting on the same date every year. I used to track this at the zoo as it was a good indicator of wellness if a bird was late in molting or skipped a molt. The average molt takes between 14-21 days, and happens in stages. They lose their fluffy down layer first, then their waterproof top layer. They are unable to go fishing during this time as the water is too cold without either of those layers. With this, the birds will gain about 40% of their bodyweight in preparation for the molt. So, they get really fat, then they get really fluffy. At the zoo they would hide during this time in their nest boxes. Even though food was still available, they would often go many days without eating.
In the wild, the penguins try to remain as stationary as possible during this time. It is imperative they don’t expend too many calories moving around. This is why selfies are a problem. In an effort to get their next “like” on social media, people are getting far too close to the penguins on the beaches, especially the adorable fat fluffy ones. They are chasing the birds around, and molting penguins are literally dying of starvation after being chased around by tourists.
If there is one hope for the African Penguin, it is a conservation group called SANCCOB. Since 1968, they’ve admitted almost 100,000 seabirds to their rehabilitation center in Cape Town. I had the great pleasure of volunteering with this amazing group of humans for a few weeks in 2015, and was able to hand deliver a large check from our conservation efforts at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo. During my time at the zoo, we raised funds for a boardwalk to keep people off the sandy breeding grounds and several Rangers to monitor and protect the penguins at both mainland nesting sites. Without SANCCOB these birds would already be gone.
What can you do here in NW Montana? Adopt a penguin at www.sanccob.co.za. This makes a great gift for kids, and makes a huge difference for African Penguins. Feel free to reach out if you want to learn more, education is my best tool to help.
“You won’t save what you don’t love and you can’t love what you don’t know.” -Jacques Cousteau