Cape Town - Seventy compromised and orphaned African penguins have been released back to their home on Dyer Island to stabilise the declining population.
Their return comes as the avian influenza outbreak ravages seabird populations in the Western Cape.
The African Penguin and Seabird Sanctuary (APSS) facilitated the release of the penguins.
Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries (DEFF) spokesperson Zolile Nqayi said African penguin numbers were drastically declining and if the population trajectory continued they could be functionally extinct within 15 years.
She said this decline was the result of various stressors, including lack of available food, predation, climate change, disease, disturbance, shipping vessel activity, competition with other predators for food, and the availability and quality of breeding habitat, which may have had individual, combined and cumulative impacts on the species.
The release at Dyer Island was part of Dyer Island Conservation Trust’s (DICT’s) projects to stabilise the declining penguin population and part of the African Penguin Biodiversity Management Plan of the DEFF, where a total of 202 chicks were removed between October and November and handraised at the sanctuary.
DICT spokesperson Brenda Walters said the remaining penguins would be released over the next few days and weeks that followed.
“The chicks are removed at the end of the breeding season, when the adults go through their annual moult. Due to a variety of circumstances, some parents start their moult before their offspring have reached the fledgling stage.
“These chicks will either starve to death on the island or venture into the ocean without the required amount of fat reserves to allow them to survive the challenges of the wild,” said Walters.
Dyer Island was the epicentre of the recent outbreak of avian influenza in the Western Cape. APSS senior bird rehabilitator Xolani Lawo said this additional pressure made caring for these chicks a mammoth undertaking as all the penguins had to be quarantined for a period of five days.
DICT conservation manager Trudi Malan said the African penguin population could not hold on much longer and urged the DEFF to ensure the protection of the seabirds’ food source as the species was losing the fight against the fishing industry.
The DEFF and SANParks formed a task team last year to come up with proposals to address the declining population.
Nqayi said among the management proposals contained in the joint internal departmental technical task team report handed to the minister for consideration was that fishing around six penguin colonies, including Dyer Island, be limited.