More than 450 endangered African penguin chicks have been saved from starvation in South Africa in a project led by the Bristol Conservation and Science Foundation and Bristol Zoo to save this increasingly threatened species.
The rescued chicks, aged between seven and nine-weeks-old, have been taken to the SANCCOB (Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds) headquarters in Cape Town after being collected from land and island-based penguin colonies near Cape Town.
The 459 chicks will now be hand-reared for around six weeks before returning back to their colonies in the wild. This is the largest number of chicks SANCCOB has cared for at any one time since 2007 when 481 abandoned chicks were treated.
The effort is part of a ‘chick bolstering project’, named Project Penguin, being run by the Bristol Conservation and Science Foundation and Bristol Zoo Gardens in partnership with SANCCOB, the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), Robben Island Museum, the University of Cape Town’s Animal Demography Unit, Cape Nature and Oceans and Coasts (Department of Environmental Affairs, South African government).
Penguin chicks that hatch late in the breeding season are frequently abandoned by their parents when the weather grows warmer and as food supplies diminish. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that remaining adult penguins begin their annual moult at this time of the year. During moulting the penguins shed their old feathers and grow new ones, leaving them not waterproof and therefore unable to swim, catch fish and feed their chicks.
Dr Christoph Schwitzer, Head of Research at the Bristol Conservation and Science Foundation, based at Bristol Zoo, said: “This is a huge effort to conserve an endangered species and every chick is vitally important. Unless conservation organisations intervene, these chicks would starve to death and there is a substantial risk that this species could eventually become extinct.”
Venessa Strauss, Chief Executive Officer of SANCCOB, added: “Our research shows that hand-rearing African penguins has a significantly positive effect on conserving the wild populations, with hand-reared and released chicks showing higher survivorship to breeding age and higher productivity than birds that fledge naturally in the wild.”
Scientists have seen numbers of African penguins decline more than 50 percent in just three generations, leading to the species' re-classification from Vulnerable to Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species earlier this year.
Dr Schwitzer added: "When we release the penguins in around six weeks’ time, they will be fitted with flipper bands. As part of the project, some chicks will also be fitted with satellite transmitters so we can track their movements. This will help us investigate which factors determine the penguins’ breeding site fidelity and how we can help them establish new breeding colonies at sites closer to the fish stocks.”
For more information about Bristol Zoo Gardens’ African penguins, or for adoption details, visit the website http://www.bristolzoo.org/.uk or phone 0117 974 7300.
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