Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds

SANCCOB Rehabilitator’s experience with Abandoned African Penguin Chicks after Algoa Bay Oil Spill

SANCCOB Rehabilitator, Melissa Cadman, shares her personal experience as part of the response team during the aftermath of an oil spill in the Eastern Cape – “My heart sank at the news of an oil spill in Algoa Bay and I had deep concern for the marine wildlife in the area. This was the morning of the 6th of July 2019 and immediately, all SANCCOB staff was briefed to be on standby to assist, not knowing how serious the effects of the oil spill would be.

Our centre in Port Elizabeth (PE) was the closest facility with the right expertise and mandate to rescue and rehabilitate oiled wildlife but when the number of oiled African penguins and Cape gannets increased there was also an increase in the number of African penguin chicks abandoned at the Eastern Cape colonies.

I am based at the Table View centre in Cape Town and on 10 July I was deployed to PE to assist with hand-rearing the abandoned chicks because of my experience at SANCCOB’s Chick Rearing Unit in Cape Town. I arrived the following day and already received five heavily oiled penguin eggs but those could not be saved due to the absorption of oil that is extremely toxic to the developing embryo. I started to train interns in PE in chick rearing and between four of us – dedicated to the chicks – we rotated morning and afternoon shifts daily, seven days a week, until more help arrived from our Cape Town team.

The next few days that followed were intense and African penguin chicks were admitted almost every day. A few of the chicks came in with their oiled parents at their side and it is heart-breaking in hindsight but at the time it gave us even more motivation. Out of the 109 African penguins that were admitted, 92 were oiled and 17 were chicks of oiled parent birds; added to this number were almost double the amount of chicks already admitted before the oil spill. Not having a dedicated Chick Rearing Unit proved to be a challenge and a space was quickly freed up to arrange a sterile and secure environment to accommodate the chicks. With the smallest chick weighing a meagre 56 grams, day and night care was necessary for the chicks.

Unfortunately, five chicks were not strong enough and succumbed to infection but we managed to release 10 of the surviving 12 chicks once they acquired their waterproof plumage and were in good body condition. At present there are two chicks that are not yet ready for release and overall, we have been successful with the percentage of chicks saved – they could have had a very different feat if not rescued in time by South African National Parks (SANParks), the conservation authority in Algoa Bay.

From starting my journey with SANCCOB as a 7-month intern in 2017 and then volunteering for a full calendar year in 2018, I have undertaken a permanent position as a Bird Rehabilitator since January 2019 and I am thrilled to be a part of the SANCCOB family.”

November 6, 2019

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