Ask any South African where you can go to see African penguins in the wild and they will probably tell you to head to Boulders Beach at Cape Town's Simon's Town. Those who are a bit better travelled might also recommend that you check out the Stony Point colony in Betty's Bay, or that you might steal a view of a penguin on a visit to Robben Island. But, what few South Africans are aware of is that prior to 1985, these penguin colonies did not exist at all... and that their existence is a scary warning to us.

So where did the Boulders Beach penguin colony's birds come from? What happened to the colonies where these birds originated? And, why should we be worried about African penguins?

Where are all the colonies?

Today there are currently 28 African penguin colonies, only four of these occurring on the mainland. These colonies run along the coast, from Algoa Bay to Namibia's Penguin Islands. Despite the huge distances between these colonies, it is not uncommon for young penguins to visit, and occasionally resettle at, a different colony from which they hatched.

But, as is evident from the huge quantities of guano (deposits of penguin poop) that accumulated over hundreds, if not thousands, of years at some of these sites, it was not the norm for colonies to be completely abandoned, or for penguins to move to locations where no existing colony was present. 

The African penguin colony of Dassen Island as seen by the naturalists of the Valhalla when visiting the island in 1908. Credit: Michael Nicoll

Despite their wide range and versatile juveniles, African penguin numbers are declining fast - so fast that it is believed they will be extinct within 10 years. Today there are fewer than 21 000 pairs of African penguins left in the wild - 100 years ago there were single colonies that had over a million, like Yzerfontein's Dassen Island. Dassen Island is, unfortunately, not a unique case.

The far more deserted Dassen Island that we see today. Credit: Lighthouses.co.za

Why do the colonies move?

Adult penguins, especially those with mates, rarely leave their nesting colony, however it is quite common for fledgelings to travel long distances to visit distant colonies. Breeding penguins usually forage within 20km of their colony, sometimes up to 60km, whereas non-breeders can range over 100km. Young penguins move back and forward between colonies at the Cape and Namibia.

Young penguins have a knack for boldly going where no penguin has gone before. Credit: Bart Hiddink.

Where did all the fish go?

African penguins rely on sardines as their main food source. Sardines migrate seasonally and these migrations are the main influencing factor in determining penguins’ breeding seasons. The high abundance of sardines during certain seasons allows penguins to hunt extensively, get fat and have enough energy to put into rearing their chicks and moulting before the next breeding season.

Because of overfishing of sardines, the 1960s and early 1970s were marked by an exodus of young penguins from the West Coast, between Table Bay and Luderitz. These penguins settled in locations with year-round abundance in alternative prey animals – anchovies at Dyer Island and bearded gobies at Ichaboe and Mercury Islands (which are further north along the Namibian coast). Although these northern and southern colonies expanded, there was an overall 25% decline in penguin numbers, most visible on the West Coast.

At Dyer Island, the anchovy stock collapsed in the late 1970s, with thousands of penguins abandoning their nests. Young penguins left Dyer Island and formed three new colonies: Stony Point and Boulders Beach, which had an abundance of sardines at the time, and Robben Island, which had an abundance of anchovies. A further 19% of penguins were lost.

Colonies in decline

African penguins are clearly resilient animals. They have evolved the behavioural mechanisms to move their entire population to deal with changes in the abundance of food and, as recent history has demonstrated, they are able to do this repeatedly even within the same decade.

Penguins are not the only South African sea life with habitats at risk - here are 10 more Aquarium animals whose wild counterparts are losing their homes.

However, nature cannot snap its fingers and magically adapt to change - it needs time. Each time the environment of the African penguin has changed the same pattern is seen: As their numbers drop, they move to areas that are better able to support them, but before they have time to reestablish themselves, the environment changes again and their numbers drop again and they have to move again. These rapidly successive changes are man-made.

Now, just as the "new" colonies at Robben Island, Boulders Beach and Stony Point have reached maturity, the penguins once again find themselves in overfished waters that are unsustainable for their colonies. Unfortunately, in this case it seems that there may no longer be any fish-rich foraging grounds left for the African penguin - there are no more second chances if we don't start protecting their habitats right now.

What's next for African penguins?

You might be thinking that the African penguin's situation is impossible - how can we possibly save an animal whose population is so tiny? But, you are forgetting one thing - African penguins are hardcore. They have survived centuries of egg poaching, having their colonies devastated by guano miners, massive oil spills, having their feeding grounds destroyed and, let's not forget, bird flu.

They are still here and they can recover - but they need YOU to help stop other humans from messing with their habitats even more. Here's what you can do:

Credit: Pontus Hjelm
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