Seabird Conservation


The African penguin (Spheniscus demersus), Africa’s only extant penguin, is endemic to Namibia and South Africa. It was formerly the most abundant seabird of the Benguela upwelling ecosystem but, following large declines of the species in the 20th century and a collapse of the South African population in the present century, is now classified as Endangered by the IUCN and under TOPS (NEMA). In addition to biodiversity concerns, African Penguins (and other seabirds) are important in regional economies (e.g., through attracting tourism) and in the healthy functioning of ecosystems. 

More than 50,000 pairs of African penguins bred in South Africa in 2004 but this declined to approximately 13,000 pairs in 2019. In 2016, the status of the African penguin was re-assessed according to the IUCN Red Listing criteria and its classification as Endangered was maintained (IUCN 2016). Such is the rate of decline of the African penguin, that it has been identified as one of three species of penguins globally that are in critical need of urgent conservation action. The population declined again in 2021 with South African populations at approximately 10,000 pairs, while Namibia has recorded around 4,000 breeding pairs of African penguins in the same year. The most recent census in South Africa revealed an alarming decline since; around 8,300 pairs are all that remain. 


Cape cormorants (Phalacrocorax capensis) are endemic to the Benguela Upwelling System, which means they only breed in Angola, Namibia and South Africa. Due to a decline in numbers of breeding pairs over the last three generations (the last 30 years) by over 50%, the species has been listed as Endangered by the IUCN in 2013. The largest colonies are on Ichaboe Island, Namibia and Dyer Island, South Africa. In recent years, Cape cormorants have been observed breeding further to the east, reaching Algoa Bay in the Eastern Cape, presumably following fish availability Cape cormorants have also been observed breeding in southern Angola, however little is known about the exact numbers and trends at these breeding sites. 

Cape cormorants, like some of the other seabird species, suffer from lack of food as their main prey, sardines and anchovies are scarce in southern African waters. Cape cormorants are also affected by disease outbreaks; between 2002 and 2006, over 30,000 Cape cormorants died due to an Avian Cholera outbreak on Dyer Island. In 2021, Cape cormorants were the main species affected by an outbreak of Avian Influenza in South Africa where more than 24,000 Cape cormorants died or had to be euthanised due to the outbreak. SANCCOB was heavily involved in this disease response and assisted managing authorities on the ground with dealing with the outbreak.  


Cape gannets (Morus capensis) only breed on six islands worldwide: three in Namibia (Mercury, Ichaboe and Possession islands) and three in South Africa (Bird (Lambert’s Bay), Malgas and Bird (Algoa Bay) islands). In the 1950s, most Cape gannets bred in Namibia but since the late 1990s, over 80% of all Cape gannets worldwide breed in South Africa, with Bird Island in Algoa Bay being by far the largest colony (recent estimates are around 80,000 breeding pairs). Due to a decline of over 50% of the number of breeding pairs in the last three generations the species was classified as Endangered by the IUCN in 2018.

Main reasons for the decline of Cape gannets both in Namibia and South Africa is the lack of their main prey items, sardines. Sardine stocks collapsed in Namibia in the 1960s and 1970s, leading to a dramatic decline of several seabird species, including Cape gannets and African penguins. In South Africa, recent changes in sardine distribution and a depletion of sardine stocks along the West Coast of South Africa have led to a decline in numbers of breeding Cape gannets on the two West Coast colonies (Lambert’s Bay and Malgas Island, Saldanha Bay). Cape gannets are also threatened by oil spills; in 1983, 5,000 Cape gannets were oiled when a tanker caught fire in Saldanha Bay, close to the breeding colony on Malgas Island. More recently, SANCCOB rehabilitated over 170 oiled Cape gannets after a spill in the Eastern Cape and Cape gannets were also oiled in the most recent spills in Algoa Bay as result of fuel ship-to-ship bunkering.


The Bank cormorant (Phalacrocorax neglectus) is classified as Endangered, a seabird endemic to southern Africa. Over 80% of the world’s population is currently breeding in a single colony on Mercury Island, Namibia, hosting over 2,000 Bank cormorant pairs. Colonies in South Africa are all smaller than 100 breeding pairs, this species can be found along the Cape Columbine and Yzerfontein coastline (West Coast), on Robben Island and at Stony Point colony.

Bank cormorants’ main diet mostly consists of Rock lobster, a prey species that has been dramatically depleted and birds struggle to find sufficient food. Bank cormorants in Namibia have switched their diet to bearded goby, an abundant but low energy fish species that is now the main prey for Bank cormorants and African penguins.