On Tuesday, 12 January 2021, over 600 abandoned Cape cormorant chicks were rescued from Robben Island for admission to the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB) in Table View, Cape Town. A robust rescue operation was executed by Robben Island Museum (RIM), SANCCOB, Two Oceans Aquarium and the National Sea Rescue Institute (NSRI) to retrieve and safely transport the chicks, which had been abandoned by their parent birds and too young to fend for themselves. There is an estimated 3,000 breeding pairs of Cape cormorants on the Island and each nest usually has two to three chicks thus thousands in distress. This operation is now the second largest seabird rescue in the Western Cape after the MV Treasure oil spill in 2000.
On admission to SANCCOB’s seabird hospital, each chick was weighed and hydrated to quickly stabilise and reduce stress, and then placed in designated pens according to weight. Sadly, approximately 50 chicks died and a total of 594 chicks ranging from 150g to 600g were being cared for on the first day of admission. Over the two days that followed, a few hundred more chicks were collected from Robben Island, bringing the total number of chicks in SANCCOB’s care to just under 1,700.
SANCCOB’s research department suspects that the lack of food could be the main reason for the abandonment and investigations are still underway. “Cape cormorants feed mainly on anchovy (and to a smaller extent on sardines) and these small pelagic fish species are at very low levels at the moment. We are seeing dramatic population declines in all seabird species that rely on these fish species; the African penguin, the Cape gannet and Cape cormorant, are all listed as Endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and lack of sufficient food is the primary factor for the most recent declines observed,” explains Dr Katta Ludynia, SANCCOB’s Research Manager.
Due to the hot weather over the last two days it was first suspected that adult birds flew further out to sea to cool down but this is not likely as they would have been seen rafting close to the Island and eventually return to their chicks when the temperature dropped.
Ludynia says, “Cape cormorants are summer breeders; their main breeding season is between October and December and they breed along the coast of South Africa and Namibia (into Angola), thus should be used to heat. There has been a recent Masters study on the behaviour of Cape cormorants and other cormorant species in heat and they did not observe abandonment at high temperatures comparable (or even higher) than what we had in recent days.”
SANCCOB and RIM’s Penguin and seabird ranger monitors the birds on the Island – amongst other duties – and immediately alerted Robben Island Museum’s Environmental Unit and SANCCOB when adult cormorants had not returned to their chicks after a few hours.
“Conservation is essentially central to Robben Island Museum’s mandate as a museum. Although Robben Island was inscribed a World Heritage Site in 1999 under the category of cultural landscapes, fauna and flora form part of our valuable heritage assets and need to be prudently conserved and sustained at all times. We appreciate our collaboration with SANCCOB as it contributes in bolstering our efforts in managing the Island as an integrated resource,” says Mr Thabo Seshoka, Robben Island Museum’s Head of Heritage and Research.
Intervention was imperative to save the chicks and NSRI Table Bay responded to the rescue parties’ request for assistance. The chicks were boxed and transported to the mainland by NSRI’s sea rescue craft, Spirit of Vodacom.
“This is an unusual occurrence; an anomaly that both RIM and SANCCOB are studying and working towards understanding. Annually, 164 different bird species (including the endangered African Penguin) breed on the Island and this further emphasises the need for responsible tourism as a Marine Protected Area and World Heritage Site; and for the public to be environmentally conscious, ”concludes Seshoka.
SANCCOB is focusing its resources on providing the veterinary and rehabilitative care for the cormorant chicks until eventual release in two to three months, while simultaneously rehabilitating existing seabird patients. In light of this crisis situation, SANCCOB will need the support of public to help in their fundraising endeavours to contribute to medication and fish for the chicks.
Please contact Ronnis Daniels to lend support in terms of donations at Ronnis@sanccob.co.za or phone +27 21 557 6155.