Featured photo by Georgia Aquarium / Addison Hill
While many people associate penguins with cold climates, the African penguin (Spheniscus demersus) is found in much more temperate climates, as it is naturally found along the coastlines of South Africa, Mozambique, and Namibia. Unfortunately, African penguins are considered an endangered species, and the population’s decline has been consistent and has shown no signs of reversal. Per IUCN, the current population is estimated to include at about 50,000 mature individuals, a 60% drop in the past 30 years.
IUCN cites that growth in the commercial fishing industry is the main threat to this species in the wild. As more fish are caught from the oceans, penguins are forced to travel farther out to sea to find enough prey to sustain themselves and their offspring. Oil spills from commercial fishing vessels are another side effect of the growth of this industry, and they are also a serious threat to the species.
One organization that has been working to save the African penguin for many years is the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB), and the Georgia Aquarium has been supporting SANCCOB in various ways since 2009. Each year, SANCCOB rescues and rehabilitates up to 1,500 penguins, and on average, of those 1,500, between 600 and 900 are stranded chicks that require long-term rehabilitation and rearing.
At the beginning of December, penguin care team members from the Georgia Aquarium traveled to South Africa to assist SANCCOB in the treatment of the first wave of stranded chicks, which consisted of about 400 birds. The Georgia Aquarium has had 26 African penguin births since 2012 through the AZA Species Survival Plan, which has allowed aquarium staff to share expertise and veterinary research with SANCCOB over the years.
Also during their visit to South Africa, penguin care team members assisted in the release of 23 rehabilitated penguin chicks that had previously been rescued, reared, and rehabilitated by SANCCOB. In 2015, SANCCOB’s African penguin chick rescue program achieved an 85% success rate.
The Georgia Aquarium has also provided financial assistance to SANCCOB over their 7-year partnership, and to this day, the aquarium has donated more than $250,000 to help fund this organization. During their trip to South Africa, aquarium staff presented SANCCOB with a $40,000 gift.
In Atlanta, the Georgia Aquarium has been able to connect over 18,000 guests with African penguins through its Penguin Encounter program. In the program, guests not only meet penguins but also learn how the aquarium, SANCCOB, and other partner organizations are working to save this endangered species. Interaction programs like these at other zoos and aquariums help guests appreciate animals and learn how to protect their wild counterparts.