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The fight to save the African Penguin

The African penguin, ‘Spheniscus demersus’ is an iconic species native to the coasts of South Africa and Namibia. These charismatic birds face a multitude of threats, primarily from human activities and climate change.

In the last century, the African penguin’s population has plummeted, pushing them dangerously close to extinction.

Human activities have had a profound impact on the birds and their habitat. Overfishing, pollution, and disturbance from tourism are among the primary threats. The gross depletion of fish stocks has left penguins struggling to find enough food to feed themselves and their young.

Pollution, including oil spills and plastic debris, has continued to pose a significant threat, often leading to entanglement, ingestion, and poisoning. Additionally, coastal development and disturbance from human activities disrupt breeding colonies, further endangering the species.

Climate change has intensified the threats faced by African penguins. Rising sea temperatures and changing ocean currents disrupt the distribution of prey species, making it even more challenging for penguins to find food.

Extreme weather events in South Africa, primarily floods and storms, have devastated penguin colonies and their ability to procreate. Sea-level rise has also threatened to inundate nesting sites, forcing the animals to abandon their traditional breeding grounds.

The combined effects of human activities and climate change have led to a dramatic decline in the African penguin population. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), African penguins are classified as endangered, with their numbers declining by 99% over the last century.

Today, only 8,750 breeding pairs remain, scattered across various colonies along the coast of South Africa and Namibia, an 8% population decline yearly. It is estimated that by 2035, the bird species will be extinct if no action is taken.

Recognizing the urgent need for conservation action, organisations such as BirdLife South Africa and the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB) have been at the forefront of efforts to protect African penguins.

The two organisations have taken legal action against the South African Minister of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment Ms Barbara Creecy for her failure to adequately protect penguin habitats.

BirdLife South Africa and SANCCOB filed a lawsuit against the government citing negligent immobility. They argued that the government had violated its obligations under national and international environmental laws to conserve biodiversity and protect endangered species.

The core complaint against the Minister is her failure to implement biologically meaningful closures around the birds’ breeding areas. Last year, the Minister announced the continuation of inadequate ‘interim closures’ around breeding colonies at Dassen Island, Robben Island, Stony Point, Dyer Island, St. Croix Island and Bird Island.

The Ministry declined to take science-based decisions from researchers who highlighted various recommendations including a method for determining the appropriate island delineations which would seek to optimise benefits of closures to African Penguins, while minimising costs to the small-pelagic purse-seine industry.

Human activities and climate change continue to pose significant threats to penguin populations, but legal action and conservation efforts offer hope for their survival.

Addressing these challenges is essential to ensure a brighter future for African penguins and the rich biodiversity of the planet’s coastal ecosystems.