Researchers respond to Daily Maverick’s Opinionista by Dr Andrew Jenkins

You might have seen the article recently published in the Daily Maverick, “As African Penguins teeter on the brink of extinction, Boulders could be a vital education tool”.

As NGOs working closely with SANParks on the matter of African penguin conservation, SANCCOB and BirdLife South Africa, we would like to give you a little bit more of a background to the story.

This is what our researchers have to say:

Dr Andrew Jenkins titled his Opinionista article in the Daily Maverick on 23 July 2023 with “As African Penguins teeter on the brink of extinction, Boulders could be a vital education tool” and we couldn’t agree more. As Andrew points out, Boulders and the Simon’s Town Penguin Colony hosts more than half a million visitors a year, which is a huge socio-economic benefit for the area and for tourism in South Africa overall. It is also a great opportunity to inform and educate the public, both local and international, of the fact that the African penguin is on the brink of extinction, about the threats that the species is facing and most importantly, about what every one of us can do to save the African penguin and the environment that we all rely on. There is definitely room for improvement in terms of information sharing and visitor engagement around the plight of the endangered African penguin at Boulders and hopefully further efforts will be undertaken by SANParks to raise awareness around these important issues.

Unlike most other large African penguin colonies, the penguin population at Boulders has been relatively stable since the turn of the century and the decline of the species is not as obvious to the visitor as it would be at other colonies. After the natural establishment of this colony in 1985, the colony increased to a peak of over 1,200 breeding pairs in 2005, at a time when most colonies in the Western Cape were benefitting from an abundance of sardine and anchovy, the main prey of the African penguin. However, while most other colonies in the Western Cape have had dramatic declines since then, Boulders (and the surrounding areas) have remained relatively stable with 800 to 1,100 breeding pairs in the last decade. One of the reasons for the current dramatic decline of African penguins in South Africa is the limited availability of their principle prey, sardine and anchovy, the current stock estimates of which are well below average estimates recorded since the 1980s. Sardine and anchovy are also the target of the largest fishery by volume in South Africa, the purse-seine fishery, which competes with African penguins for this prey resource. However, Boulders’ penguins forage within False Bay, an area closed to purse-seine fishing and they benefit from the Table Mountain National Park Marine Protected Area along the western shore of False Bay.

Disturbance and negative impacts of tourism and other human activities are a concern for the African penguin, and not only in Simon’s Town. Tourist access needs to be well managed, especially in peak periods during summer months when large numbers of tourists descend on this popular hotspot trying to get the perfect selfie on Boulders or Seaforth Beach and not always acting in the best interest of the penguins. More penguins are likely injured, and often killed, by dogs taken off leashes and by motor vehicle collisions in Simon’s Town. These issues are more often caused by local residents rather than by tourists. SANCCOB, together with the City of Cape Town, has placed Penguin and Seabird Rangers in Simon’s Town, who monitor the penguins breeding on City of Cape Town land, and also assist SANParks inside the Boulders colony. A large part of their daily responsibilities is dealing with tourists and local residents, keeping inappropriate behaviour at bay but also educating them about the needs of African penguins and their threatened status. The Rangers do not hold any enforcement authority, but they teach visitors about responsible tourism and remind residents of the City’s by-laws.

The SANParks African penguin conservation agenda might not always be visible to the public. As conservation NGOs having worked at the forefront of African penguin conservation for several decades, we can attest to the important role that SANParks, especially its scientists and colony managers, have played. SANParks is a key role player in the contentious discussions pertaining to fishing restrictions around important breeding colonies, and how these restrictions can benefit breeding African penguins. Important input from SANParks’ scientists has been provided, not only on the fishing and fish availability issues but also on topics related to climate change, extreme weather events and other threats to the African penguin.

There is always more than can be done and we are therefore committed to work together with SANParks and the City of Cape Town to make it happen and to save the African penguin from extinction.

Dr Katta Ludynia, Christina Hagen & Dr Alistair McInnes – SANCCOB & BirdLife South Africa