Conservationists are using penguin “dummies” and fake penguin broadcasts in an attempt to convince African penguins to settle at De Hoop Nature Reserve in the southern Cape.
Now the first batch of penguin fledglings has been released into the area, to fast-track the project aimed at arresting the rapid decline in the area’s African penguin population.
Thirty juvenile penguins were released in De Hoop last week, all fitted with transponders for monitoring purposes and two with additional GPS trackers to allow for immediate monitoring.
A penguin colony sprang up at De Hoop in 2003 but was abandoned a few years later due to predation by caracal.
Since 2015 experts have begun building predator-proof fencing to encourage penguins to return and to protect new fledglings, including the newcomers.
“It is critical that we reverse the decline of the endangered African penguin, and the release of the rehabilitated fledglings is an important next step in achieving the goal of establishing a colony,” said CapeNature CEO Dr Razeena Omar.
The penguin restocking project is a joint venture involving CapeNature, BirdLife South Africa and the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (Sanccob).
The penguin decline is believed to be linked to a shift in fish stocks away from historic feeding grounds on the west coast.
Experts believe the penguins are now struggling to find food, a problem compounded by competition with industrial fishing activities.
In addition, penguins have battled to establish safe colonies in areas like De Hoop due to predation on land.
The “lifelike penguin decoy” and penguin calls “help create the impression that penguins are breeding there”, the project partners said in a statement on Tuesday to mark the release of the juveniles.
It is hoped the combined efforts will encourage more penguins to settle in the De Hoop colony.
“This release, which will hopefully be the first of many, is the culmination of many years of work, so I’m immensely excited to see it finally happening,” said Christina Hagen from BirdLife SA, who has been running the project since 2015.
“Although there are more years of hard work ahead of us, it is an important step to take now, as every year we wait, we lose more and more penguins.”
Most of the released penguins hatched in incubators at Sanccob in Table View, Cape Town, after their eggs were abandoned at Stony Point penguin colony in Betty’s Bay.
Sanccob vet Dr David Roberts said: “We received an unusually large number of African penguin eggs earlier this year and it was a tall task to hand-rear so many chicks at once.
“Events like this one indicate the trouble African penguins are in when extreme weather conditions and lack of food cause adult birds to abandon their nests to save themselves.”
Roberts said the penguins had been released as fledglings because it meant they had not yet chosen a place to breed.
“We hope that they will return to De Hoop Nature Reserve to breed when they are ready to do so in three to six years.”