Not such Happy Feet.

Louise de Waal and Daréll Lourens ventured to Gansbaai and decided to stop at the African Penguin and Seabird Sanctuary (APSS) in Kleinbaai. This recently opened seabird rehabilitation centre had them in awe of what can be achieved when you bring passionate and inspirational people together.

From when the first spade hit the soil in August 2014 until the official opening in February 2015, the team behind the APSS have already achieved some truly remarkable work. If this is a sign of what is to come, we can expect some near miracles in Kleinbaai.

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Why is the APSS so important and necessary?

The story of the African penguin is unfortunately not a very happy one. Their numbers have dwindled from more than 2 million adults at the start of the 20th Century to as little as 38,000 in 2014. This equates to a population decline of an average of 90 birds per week since 1956!

Dyer Island, a critically important breeding colony off the coast of Gansbaai, is no exception and has now only around 900 breeding pairs remaining compared to 23,000 in 1979.

Four human inflicted threats have been identified as the main causes for this rapid population decline.

In the early 1900s, the eggs of the African penguin were considered a delicacy. In just 30 years’ time, between 1900-30, a whopping 13 million eggs were harvested from the breeding colonies around the South African coast, including Dyer Island.

At the same time, guano or ‘white gold’ (bird droppings) was harvested extensively for use as agricultural fertiliser throughout the 19th and 20th Century. It is thought that the guano on Dyer Island was up to 4 m thick. The guano harvesting has left the islands bare, forcing penguins to breed on the surface, instead of digging their nests safely into the thick layers of guano. Unfortunately, this leaves the eggs and chicks exposed to both predators and the hot African sun.

South Africa is a global hotspot for oil pollution, which is extremely dangerous to most sea birds, including penguins. The oil can not only poison the birds, but oiled feathers also lose their waterproofing and insulation. An oiled penguin is unable to stay in the cold sea water, as they would quickly die of hypothermia. As during their annual moult, they are completely confined to land, unable to feed and will ultimately die of starvation.

Penguins’ main food source is pelagic fish, like sardines, anchovies, horse mackerel and herring squid. They are known to travel more than 50 km to feed and an adult bird can eat up to 110 kg of fish per year. Overfishing of anchovy and sardine can hugely impact on the breeding success of the penguin.

It will come as no surprise that the African penguin is listed as Endangered and centres like the APSS are extremely important in supporting the remaining breeding colonies. Colonies like on Dyer Island are now so small that they have become exceedingly vulnerable to minor natural events, such as bad weather, seal predation and seagulls stealing eggs.

#EveryBirdCounts to the APSS

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Unfortunately, we have literally come to a point where #EveryBirdCounts.

Every oiled penguin.
Every penguin injured by seals, sharks or fishing lines.
Every penguin that has lost its way, is exhausted or underweight.

The APSS will respond to any emergency call involving diseased, displaced, injured, oiled and abandoned marine birds, with the main focus on penguins. They will treat the birds, and care for them, and house them temporarily until their condition has improved and they can be released back in the wild.

African-Penguin-and-Seabird-Sanctuary-APSS-Xolani-Lawo

Xolani Lawo, Kleinbaai’s very own Penguin Whisperer, is the most amazing and dedicated person I have met in a long time. He is the main carer at APSS and has an exceptional knowledge and experience when it comes to penguins. He started his career at the SANCCOB Cape St Francis centre and since October 2014 he works at APSS.

When a rescued bird is brought into the centre, the vast majority oil victims and penguins with shark bite injuries, Xolani records a range of information that is shared with CapeNature. He records the nature of their injuries, their general condition, such as hydration and weight, and the medication the birds receive. All birds are routinely checked for tick related diseases and avian malaria. The admitted birds are first kept in their ICU unit, where they are closely monitored, given antibiotics, and fed three times a day.

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After about 5 days, the birds are moved into the rehabilitation area for a 3 to 4 week period, where they are fed twice a day, exercised in a specialised pool, and closely monitored for the duration of their stay. Once their wounds are healed and the birds have gained enough weight (at least 2.8 kg for an adult penguin), they are released back at Dyer Island to join the rest of the colony.

Dee and I had the privilege to get the guided tour of this sophisticated rehabilitation and visitor’s centre, but anybody can view the penguins in their recovery pen. The best thing is that the penguins are none the wiser, as there is one-way mirrored and sound proof glass between the visitor’s centre and rehab area.

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I thought I knew quite a bit about the plight of the African penguin, but the APSS proved me wrong. This centre taught me about the devastating egg harvesting in the early 1900s that I was not aware of. But more importantly, it confirmed once again the importance of going slow and making time for the not so obvious tourist stops. Those educational and informative stops. Places that have been brought about and run by inspirational people. People with a vision and a drive to see their dream to fruition. People like Wilfred Chivell, who understands that #EveryBirdCounts and has been the driving force behind the African Penguin and Seabird Sanctuary.

Words: Louise de Waal
Pictures: Daréll Lourens

This blog first appeared on the award winning The Good Holiday.

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