Known as: African Penguin, Jackass Penguin, Black-footed Penguin.
Estimated numbers left in the wild:75,000 to 80,000.
African penguins are dapper-looking black and white birds who stand approximately 60 centimetres tall, with males averaging slightly larger sizes than females. These penguins weigh 2 to 5 kilograms when mature. Like other penguins, they have a compact, upright build, wings that are specialized for swimming rather than flying, and unique patterns of black and white that are possessed only by a single bird, making individual identification possible. Their braying call gives them the nickname “Jackass penguins”.
Food and feeding: The main food of this type of penguin is fish, including herring, anchovies, pilchards, and sardines, though they will consume shellfish and squid sometimes. An African penguin can stay underwater for roughly two and a half minutes when diving after prey.
Breeding and nesting: African penguins are monogamous, and a pair will return to the same nesting site year after year if it is not disturbed or destroyed. These penguins naturally dig nesting burrows into thick deposits of guano, but if these have been removed by humans, they will make scrapes in the sand under the shelter of bushes. These sand nests are inferior to guano nests, due to exposure to the elements and ready access to predators, including kelp gulls, but can be used for successful breeding. African penguins will use artificial nests if these are provided.
The male and female take turns incubating the eggs. A month after they hatch, chicks join a crèche, which allows their parents to resume feeding more normally. African penguins reach sexual maturity at about four years, and can live anywhere from 10 to 25 years in the wild. Captive birds live significantly longer.
Location: African penguins are found along the southern African coast, including the coastal waters out to 40 kilometres (singly, in pairs, or in groups of up to 150), and a series of 25 islands and 4 onshore breeding sites.
All breeding sites are found in Namibia and South Africa. The birds are also found along the shores of nearby African nations, but they do not breed there. They are colonial birds, though they spend large amounts of time at sea when not actually breeding, though they seldom venture further than 40 kilometres from land.
Threats: African penguins have been bombarded with a series of man-made threats and problems for over a century, and are still seriously menaced by human activity. Today, drastic shortages of food caused by commercial purse-seine fishing are causing a steady and perhaps irreversible decline of these intriguing birds. Tourists also put the species at risk by collapsing nesting burrows and stressing the penguins to the point where they are unable to breed.
Oil spills have also inflicted great damage on African penguin populations. Feral cats prey on their nests, and guano removal forces nesting in the sun, where heat or flooding may destroy the clutch. The worst damage of all may have been inflicted in the past, during the mid 20th century, when penguin eggs were eaten as a gourmet food. The destruction was increased because several eggs from each nest were smashed prior to collecting the others, in order to see how fresh they were.
Conservation efforts: Numerous efforts are underway to save the African penguin, including strict protection of the birds and of their guano as well. Oiled birds are rehabilitated with an approximate 80% chance of success, and a limited captive breeding program is underway in Cape Town, South Africa. Furthermore, small fiberglass igloos are being placed at breeding sites where guano was mostly removed, and the birds eagerly take to using these artificial nests, which offer shelter from weather and predators.
Dyer Island Conservation Trust
The Dyer Island Conservation Trust works to protect the marine eco-system around the Western Cape in South Africa and a number of marine animals and birds in the area including the African penguin.