Bird’s-eye view from SANCCOB Chief Executive Officer

There has been a shift in the reality and ‘normalcy’ we have come to know and we will persevere to rise above it. As lives, livelihoods and spirits are challenged all around the world, we must work together to overcome COVID-19 and exit with renewed strength, perspective and appreciation for all the good we have in our lives. You and your families are in our thoughts.

We wish to share some insights from the SANCCOB team on how we are doing to keep you informed and to stay connected. At SANCCOB, it is business as usual for our veterinary and bird departments providing essential services and our administration staff are still holding the fort at full capacity from home during South Africa’s lockdown. As a non-profit organisation that is completely reliant on donations to enable our work, the effects of COVID-19 have already been revealed in the immediate decrease in funding from those who are also in lockdown on the North American and European continents; 36% of our annual income is derived from these continents. You can find official updates on COVID-19 at these sites: South African Government and World Health Organisation.

At our Table View centre we have been fortunate to have the assistance of remaining international volunteers, who have chosen to stay in South Africa, our reliable local volunteers and our dedicated interns who have selflessly stayed on board to care for 180 seabird patients. Staff members from other SANCCOB departments — experienced in bird handling and rehabilitation — have also stepped in to support the vet and rehabilitation teams on-site. In Port Elizabeth we have been without volunteers since mid-March with four staff members taking care of 34 African penguins undergoing rehabilitation, and more than 50 permanent resident birds; 16 birds were successfully released last week. I want to take this opportunity to salute the commitment of the SANCCOB team and extended supporting role players, who always give their all for the welfare of the birds and the shared passion to bolster the wild population of seabirds.

Three weeks ago our clinical veterinarian was ill and homebound, which was challenging but we are very grateful for the vet work provided by Dr Braam Steyn, a newly-qualified veterinarian carrying out his compulsory community service at SANCCOB this year. We have admitted fewer patients to the ICU in the last month but naturally, our concern is that seabirds in need of rescue are perhaps not being found due to the closure of beaches. We have, however, responded to calls of seabirds in urban areas and continued to assist our conservation partners in transporting injured or sick seabirds from the mainland colonies to SANCCOB.

The focus at present at our Table View facility is the hand-rearing of over 100 African penguin chicks in the Chick Rearing Unit (CRU) and Nursery, ensuring that regular health checks are carried out, which includes evaluating blood samples and monitoring correct growth rates. Since the start of the year, the CRU has admitted 319 African penguin eggs. Eggs are brought in for a variety of reasons such as breeding close to the tidal lines and thus at risk of flooding or when excessive heat causes heat stress in the parent birds and results in abandonment of nests. With eggs hatching almost daily since March, we have been caring for these hatchlings round the clock. A heartfelt thank you from us all for supporting the incubation of eggs and hatchlings in the past few weeks; the egg adoptions have been popular gifts for family and friends and these donations have been a lifesaving gift to our Chick Bolstering Project. You can still Adopt an egg if you’ve missed it!

Despite having only core staff on site for day to day operations, we have still been able to release birds back to the wild every week, including some long-term cases that had recovered from broken legs. Seabird and penguin rangers maintain their monitoring and rescue work at the colonies and ensure that birds in need of rescue are brought to SANCCOB swiftly, in partnership with conservation authorities managing the areas. For birds in Simon’s Town, the lockdown has some positive impact with wild birds because there is no disturbance by tourists and visitors and many birds are successfully raising their young.

In terms of income streams, SANCCOB is largely dependent on income generated through guided tours and school lessons at both centres in Table View and Port Elizabeth and from shop sales on-site. The lockdown in effect from 26 March has placed a complete halt on this income and the negative impact on our revenue is a concern we are giving earnest attention to. We are pleased to have confirmation from some of our conservation partners that we can count on their financial contribution regardless of the adversities faced.

During this global pandemic, we remain mindful that seabirds and other marine wildlife are still at risk from oil spills at sea because shipping of important goods around the world (including fuel) carries on during lockdown. SANCCOB remains prepared and on stand-by to respond to any oil spills affecting seabirds during this time. We are also using this time to help our partners improve oiled wildlife preparedness by developing oiled wildlife contingency plans along the South African coastline. We continue to fulfil our commitments to the various government scientific working groups such as the Small Pelagic Scientific Working Group and the Seabird Technical team, where we are observers and members respectively. In these groups we provide scientific seabird conservation inputs to government decision-making processes such as ensuring adequate food availability for seabirds.

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We continue to maintain our rehabilitation and conservation work and as always, pledge to uphold our core functions with you, our loyal supporters, at our side.

Be safe and cherish the moments we have to reflect, heal and grow as a globally united front to get through the months that lie ahead.

Yours in seabird conservation,
Dr Stephen van der Spuy
Chief Executive Officer