Of the 18 penguin species found around the world, 13 of them are experiencing population declines and are listed as Near Threatened, Vulnerable, or Endangered on the IUCN Red List. African Penguins are no exception. This species is considered Endangered and has experienced a precipitous drop in its population in a very short period of time. It is estimated that African Penguins will be functionally extinct in South Africa by 2035.
The causes for the decline in African Penguin populations are multifaceted, but they are largely rooted in human actions. Overfishing and warming sea levels caused by climate change contribute to a loss of the fish on which penguins rely as a primary food source. Guano mining and human disturbance on penguin nesting grounds reduces their reproductive success. Short-term disasters like oil spills and disease outbreaks also pose a serious threat.
The National Aviary is the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) SAFE (Saving Animals From Extinction) program leader for African Penguins. The National Aviary’s Senior Conservation Scientist, Dr. Patricia McGill, is leading this collaborative effort of accredited zoos to find and implement solutions to protect African Penguins in human care and across their range in South Africa and Namibia.
Dr. McGill and her colleagues are working to address long-term and short-term conservation challenges. SAFE’s initiatives include supplying and deploying artificial nest burrows and training teams across the African Penguin’s range to respond to disasters like oil spills and disease outbreaks. SAFE is also working to address overfishing by using RFID/PIT tags to track penguins’ movements and identify high usage areas and mitigate conflicts with fisheries.