The fate of the African penguin laid bare in the latest IPCC report

The recently released 6th IPCC (International Panel on Climate Change) Climate Change Assessment Report highlights the impacts climate change has already had on species and ecosystems, including humans. Many of the extreme events we have been experiencing over the last years – droughts, wildfires, extreme heat events – are linked to climate change and they will become more frequent and more intense in coming years. These changes are far-reaching, also impacting on ecosystem structure in the marine environment in Africa.

The report highlights African penguins as a key example. These unique birds, like many other species, are directly affected by climate change. Their food sources are becoming scarcer and less accessible due to low biomass of fish stocks, changes in temperatures and currents influencing fish distribution, as well as competition with fisheries. Their breeding habitats are threatened by increasing sea levels and storm surges and their eggs and chicks are exposed to extreme heat and extreme storm events.

The African penguin population has declined by 69% in the last two decades and the most recent count revealed that an estimated 15,800 breeding pairs remain in the wild; 10,300 pairs in South Africa and a smaller population of 5,500 pairs in Namibia. Some of the main threats are lack of sufficient fish, linked to environmental changes and industrial fishing, extreme weather events, disease outbreaks, oil pollution, human disturbance and predation.

In recent years, we have seen more and more egg and chick abandonments due to extreme weather events. Eggs and chicks are abandoned during heat waves and affected by winter storms and flooding. The Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB), with its partners, run a rescue programme to remove abandoned chicks and eggs to be taken to their hand-rearing facility. These birds are later successfully released back into the wild. To assist African penguins to adapt better to climate change with predicted further increases in frequency and intensity of these events, SANCCOB supports managing authorities in improving breeding habitat and is collaborating with the South African National Parks Cape Research Centre on developing an Early Warning System for extreme heat events to improve readiness for proactive management.  This system will be extended to other colonies in the future.

Changes in prey distribution are also linked to climate change and SANCCOB works closely with BirdLife South Africa, who seek to establish a new African penguin colony at De Hoop Nature Reserve, closer to current fish distributions. According to the IPCC Climate Report “ecosystem-based adaptations can reduce climate risk while providing social, economic and environmental benefits”. SANCCOB together with BirdLife South Africa and WWF are actively advocating for ecosystem-based fisheries management in South Africa to ensure that fishery allocations and activities consider the needs of the penguins and other predators.

The IPCC Climate Report is very clear in its projected impacts and risks. The impacts of climate change on marine systems will have substantial knock-on effects on the way in which people live, their livelihoods and their cultural identities. Every small increase in temperature will lead to further species and ecosystem losses, many of which will become irreversible. The time for urgent and ambitious emission reductions is now.

However, the report also highlights that our ability to manage these changes in ways that enhance resilience is strengthened by Ecosystem-based Adaptation, with sustainable resource management of biodiversity at the core. We need to find a new way of living and working with nature, rather than against it if we are to weather this storm. The full report can be downloaded here.