Emaciated African penguin chicks rescued on Bird Island – Eastern Cape, South Africa

On Friday, 20 August 2021 an emergency rescue operation has taken place on Bird Island in the Eastern Cape of South Africa by the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB) and the South African National Parks (SANParks) to collect 94 severely emaciated African penguin chicks in dire need of veterinary care. The chicks were identified as underweight and in extremely poor condition. They were transported to SANCCOB’s Gqeberha centre for hand-rearing and rehabilitation until they meet release criteria to be returned to the wild in four to six weeks.

The weight and condition of the chicks from Bird Island are far from being ideal for their age and the next few weeks will entail regular feeds and supplements, which is individually prescribed for each chick by SANCCOB’s veterinary and rehabilitation staff. They weighed between 750g and 2.05kg, most less than 1.5kg, and should weigh more than 2.5kg at this age.

SANCCOB has experienced such instances of mass rescues more frequently in recent years, mostly concerning endangered species like the Cape gannet, Cape cormorant and the African penguin; species that rely on small pelagic fish as their main prey. The abundance of sardine and anchovy has been shown to impact the penguins’ breeding success, adult, chick and juvenile survival. While this endangered species faces many threats, including oiling, predation, extreme weather events and disease, a host of internationally peer-reviewed, scientific research has shown that food scarcity has largely contributed to their current decline.

Penguin and Seabird Rangers are Vital! SANCCOB employs a Penguin and Seabird Ranger on Bird Island, working in partnership with (SANParks), and after monitoring the young birds in recent weeks, a decision was made to intervene to ensure their survival as it was visibly evident that the chicks were not thriving. SANCCOB employs seven rangers at African penguin colonies in South Africa; namely, Bird Island, Robben Island, Stony Point and in Simon’s Town.

All chicks were examined on admission and separated into different areas, depending on the treatment needed. On admission, blood samples were taken to determine if any were severely anaemic or had inflammatory reactions or blood parasites. The most compromised chicks are receiving treatment for bacterial and parasitic infections. Some have been very hard to stabilise and are still weak, badly dehydrated and anaemic. Whenever animals are so compromised, they have reduced immunity and can easily succumb to opportunistic bacterial, parasitic or fungal infections.

All the malnourished chicks required careful, labour-intensive feeding for at least a few days after admission, to re-introduce food slowly. We always start with correcting dehydration first and then start to feed them small amounts of easy-to-digest fish formula. Each day we slowly introduce more food until they can tolerate solid fish. We also tube the birds with a rehydrating electrolyte solution and, in some cases, inject fluids subcutaneously to correct severe dehydration.

As they get stronger, the penguin chicks will be allowed to swim in the seabird rehabilitation pools and they will learn to eat whole fish. As they strengthen, their care will be less intensive but there will still be many hungry penguins to feed. Over the next few weeks, they will learn to swim strongly and regain their normal body weight. Once they are old enough, fit enough, healthy enough and heavy enough they will be released back into the wild.

Just a few years ago, Algoa Bay – where Bird Island and St Croix Island are located – used to be home to about 50% of the remaining African penguin breeding population in South Africa. However, since 2014, these colonies in Algoa Bay have lost more than 70% of their breeding birds. The Western Cape population, historically the stronghold of the species, is also suffering a 10% loss per annum and a recent census has revealed that there are just over 10,000 breeding pairs left in the wild in South Africa.

A call for fishing restrictions around important penguin breeding colonies has been made by leading conservation NGOs, including SANCCOB, as well as some academic scientists involved in this work, and these conservation measures are currently being considered by government, together with relevant stakeholders. Unfortunately, for these malnourished chicks, these potential restrictions are coming too late and urgent rehabilitation interventions are needed to secure their short-term survival. Unless the ecosystem that the penguins rely on is protected and the penguins can find enough fish to eat and to feed their chicks, these catastrophes will continue and the numbers of African penguins will continue to decline. Unless the ecosystem is protected, African penguins could become functionally extinct in the wild in the years to come.

Donations can be made here or by EFT directly to SANCCOB’s bank account via First National Bank, Table View Branch. Account number: 5923 713 5859 and please include Chick Rescue as the reference.

Volunteers are needed to assist at SANCCOB Gqeberha so please contact 041 583 1830 if you have free time to dedicate on a regular basis to work on-site with fish and syringe preparation, cleaning stations and laundry.