Plight of the African Penguin

”Unless we practice conservation, those who come after us will have to pay the price of misery, degradation, and failure for the progress and prosperity of our day.”

Gifford Pinchot

Penguins in Africa?

When one thinks of Penguins, they think cold weather and ice, Antarctica. However, the African Penguin (Spheniscus demersus) only resides in the subtropical climates of Namibia and South Africa. These sun loving birds are listed as endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List. There are approximately only 25,000 breeding pairs (about 50,000 individuals) left on the face of the planet!

African Penguins are considered a marine species. Their modified wings act as flippers for efficient swimming. They can spend up to 4 months at sea coming onto land mainly to breed and moult. Nests are typically dug in guano (penguin feces), or sand. They typically feed on small schooling fish and occasionally cephalopods. They are commonly known as jackass penguins due to their donkey-like braying noises or black-footed penguins. They are black and white in color with unique and distinguishing black spots on their chests. African Penguins are monogamous unless breeding has failed at which time they may take on a new mate. Parents share responsibility for incubating a typical clutch of 1-2 eggs and safeguard chicks once hatched for 30 days.

Why Are They Endangered?

How did their situation become so precarious? In the late 19th/early 20th century southern African saw a need to improve food security. The region had suffered through periods of major drought and the land used for agriculture was sub-par and in need of improved fertilization. Basically, cow manure was no longer cutting it. Feces from seabirds became known as “the white gold” and was highly sought after as a fertilizer. African Penguin guano that took thousands of years to accumulate was depleted in just a few decades. Without guano to dig nests in, penguins were forced to nest in the open exposing eggs to many threats including heat stress, flooding, and predation. In addition to guano harvesting, egg collection was a significant contributor to population decline in the 20th century. By the 1960’s the African Penguin population that had been in the millions was reduced to just 300,000 breeding birds.

Adding insult to injury, industrialized fishing starting in the late 20th century depleted sardine and anchovy stocks which African Penguins relied heavily on for nutrition. A typical breeding pair’s range only extends 40km from the nest. High levels of fishing in addition to climate change drove these primary prey fish species out of range. In addition to food shortages they face predators such as sharks and Cape fur seals in the waters as well as a host of land predators such as mongoose, large herons, and introduced house cats.

What Protection Measures Are In Place?

What is being done to rescue this precious and unique species from extinction? Attempts are being made to introduce and establish African Penguin colonies closer to food resources. While predation, oil spills, and lack of nesting sites affect survival, lack of food remains the biggest threat. Predator-proof fencing, artificial nest boxes, and emergency response to oil spills are provided by concerned conservation organizations.

The Association of Zoos and Aquariums has adopted African Penguins into their Saving Animals From Extinction (SAFE) program. They work with in-situ (within natural habitat ranges or on-site) as well as ex-situ (off-site) organizations and take a multi-factorial approach towards identifying population sustainability issues and developing action plans. SAFE aims to strengthen and support health surveillance, disease monitoring, and disaster response efforts, increase effective public engagement, collect individual data for improved management practices, understand foraging and movement patterns, and monitor the impact of off-shore economic activities.

The Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB), a registered non-profit organization, provides rescue, rehabilitation and release of ill, injured, abandoned and oiled seabirds. Some of their projects include hand rearing abandoned chicks and eggs, training rangers to assist in rescue and release along with managing the environment and international tourists, providing educational programs aimed at inspiring teachers and students, and conducting disease research and risk assessments. As maritime activities increase and the waters are opened up to off-shore oil and gas drilling oil spill risks have only increased since the 20th century. SANCCOB has in place a preparedness response program ensuring both the government and oil industry act to mitigate increased oil spill risks and continues to improve the national response plan for oiled wildlife including seabirds.

How Can I Help?

You can learn more about AZA’s SAFE program for African Penguins and SANCCOBS efforts by clicking on the links listed below. Please know that all of these efforts are very costly so I have also provided links to support these efforts via direct donations.

You can also visit your local zoo and ask what programs they have in place to support endangered species. Many Zoos contribute funding, research, and or disaster relief support. Find out how you can get involved and help them make a difference.

Fundraise! There are several online fundraising platforms that make it easy to raise money for a cause. Or, put on a live fundraising event! Brainstorm to come up with fun events to raise money. Talk to local businesses to see if they would be willing to donate their venue, donate a portion of profits to your fundraiser, or perhaps raffle and silent auction gifts. It never hurts to ask and I have found that businesses are happy to get behind passionate people doing good things and putting on fun events in their community. Don’t forget to invite their whole team to your event and find out if they need a donation receipt (written acknowledgement from you to substantiate the gift). Don’t be afraid to get creative. Saving wildlife is not only important, it can be fun!

Learn More Here

AZA SAFE African Penguin Conservation

SANCCOB Projects

Donate Here

Support SAFE Programs


Do you like hearing about wildlife in need along with what you can do to help? Please let me know in the comment section below!

Boulders Beach. Cape Town, South Africa.


IUCN Red List of Endangered Species (2019) Species factsheet: Spheniscus demersus. 

BirdLife International (2019) Species factsheet: Spheniscus demersus.

Scientific Electronic Library Online South Africa (2015): Guano fertiliser.

South African National Biodiversity Institute (2018): African Penguin.

AZA SAFE: Spheniscus demersus.

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