A Comeback Story in the Making

The Long Road to Saving the African Penguin

By Ashley Junger


As the moonlight streams through the South African sky, little bobbing shadows waddle towards the rocky shore of Robben Island. Their footsteps are clumsy but purposeful as they make their way over the sun-bleached stones, faintly illuminated by the distant city lights of Cape Town. These African Penguin chicks have lived their entire lives on this island, but now, after shedding their fluffy feathers, they’re ready to leave their nests. As they dive into the foamy abyss of the South Atlantic, there is no glance back—no hesitation.

“They just disappear,” said Earthwatch Scientist Dr. Richard Sherley, the lead researcher on the Earthwatch expedition South African Penguins. “You’d expect them to hang around for a bit and kind of work out what they’re doing, but you just watch them swim away.”

While each generation of chicks shows an intense optimism in the confidence of their departure, African Penguins, on the whole, are not faring well. Richard has watched fewer fledglings leave the island each season, and even fewer return the following year to breed. On Robben Island, the population has plummeted by more than 70 percent since 2001. Globally, the population is in a nosedive—it has declined by 95 percent in the last 100 years; currently, there are 50,000 mature individuals in the wild, whereas just 100 years ago some colonies hosted over a million.

There is a growing team of dedicated researchers, government officials, and volunteers who have been working diligently for decades to prop up this species, including Richard who has been studying African Penguins for over ten years. Despite the years of crouching beneath bushes and suffering the occasional flipper slap to collect important data, the efforts haven’t been enough to overcome the arduous task of turning around the plummeting penguin population. If the decline continues at its current rate, the colonies off of South Africa’s west coast will be all but extinct by 2035.


We’re all just desperately trying to find ways to avoid watching the penguins go extinct in our lifetime.

—Sue Kuyper, an Earthwatch field staff member who has worked with African Penguins for nearly 20 years



Threat Level Penguin

Four times a day, a large ferry departs from Cape Town’s bustling waterfront and traverses just six miles to Robben Island. This landmass, which is just a bit larger than Central Park, is one of South Africa’s top tourist destinations as it’s the place where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for his anti-apartheid activism. Three years after apartheid fell, the prison was turned into Robben Island Museum, attracting travelers from around the world.

Today it stands as a symbol of human triumph and hope, and as an indirect consequence, the island has also become a symbol of hope for the African Penguin as well.

The earliest reports of Robben Island from the 1600s paint a picture of a landscape dominated by the waddling birds. But over time, travelers found ways to exploit the birds through hunting, trading their eggs, and harvesting their guano. By the late 1800s, the seabirds had virtually disappeared from the island. However, the exploitation was paused in the 1980s when the spot was designated as the site of a new political prison. With a respite from hunters, the penguins began to return to Robben Island’s shores.

The population thrived under this protection. Starting with just nine pairs in 1983, it grew spectacularly to become the second-largest colony of the species in the world with more than 6,000 breeding pairs in 2007. The recolonization of Robben seemed to be a promising resurgence in the face of the species’ rapid decline, but new and reemerging threats have been driving them from the island once again — and researchers are not confident that they’ll make another return.


A South African Penguin going for a swim off of Robben Island
A South African Penguin going for a swim off of Robben Island


The current colony on Robben hosts just 1,350 breeding pairs and faces some of the same threats as it did 200 years ago, in addition to a host of new challenges. The seaport has been built up over the years and is now a hub of ocean commerce. Cargo ships, tourist boats, and fishing vessels bustling throughout the bay make it a turbulent and chaotic place for a seven-pound penguin. Not to mention the nets, fishing lines, and pollution that come as a byproduct of the hubbub.

In fact, one of the worst hits to this colony was a consequence of this commerce. In 2000, the MV Treasure sank off the coast of South Africa, spilling over a thousand tons of fuel and threatening 40 percent of the world’s population of African Penguins. [Learn more about this oil spill on our blog.]

Today, one of the most pressing threats to these seabirds is climate change. Warming waters are pushing the penguins’ main prey, sardines and anchovies, further east. This means that there is less food near their long-established breeding colonies, and penguin parents have to travel further to get it, making it harder and harder for these birds to hunt for the food they need to sustain themselves and their chicks.

As these threats began to take their toll, scientists and government workers took notice. The African Penguin was officially put on the IUCN Red List as an endangered species in 2010, and South Africa established the “South African Penguin Biodiversity Management Plan” in 2013. Despite these efforts, the penguin population continued to drop. In response, some researchers and NGOs have been advocating for even greater protections for the penguins.

One of the biggest questions is around whether or not to close off a large marine area to fishing to protect these seabirds – a concept that has been met with resistance by fishing and other communities concerned about the economic welfare of the region. Not only that, neither scientists nor government officials were certain that establishing a Marine Protected Area would have an effect on penguin populations. Penguins spend much of the year as nomads as they hunt for prey – traveling over large expanses of ocean. Would protecting just a piece of their habitat make a difference?

To answer this question, they needed a massive amount of data. That’s where Earthwatch came in.


Penguin crossing sign on Robben Island.
Penguin crossing sign on Robben Island.



The shore of Robben Island.
The shore of Robben Island.


Enter Earthwatch

Outside of the bleak prison on Robben Island’s northeastern shore, there isn’t much to hold tourists’ attention. However, just below the tide lies an entirely different world.

The rolling waves send chaos through the dense and verdant kelp forests rooted in Robben’s rock reefs. Sea bamboo is littered throughout, stretching to reach the surface. Within this tangled greenery lives the blood-red West Coast rock lobster and one of the last viable stocks of abalone. These clam-like creatures are coveted for their delicious meat and their gorgeous pearlescent shells. Just a little further offshore lies a coral reef, which hosts a diverse array of creatures year-round.

When the South African Government decided to expand its marine protections in 2016, this spectacular seascape was an immediate target. The proposed Robben Island Marine Protected Area was part of a push by the South African government to meet the Ocean Economy and Sustainability Goals of the United Nations, which encourages nations to protect 10% of their coastal and marine areas to ensure their conservation and sustainable use. Before, South Africa had 25 formally declared MPAs that protected just 0.43 percent of their oceans. Now, with the approval of 20 new MPAs in October 2018, five percent of their oceans will be protected by 2020.

When Richard heard about this new MPA, he saw his chance to put penguins on the map as well. The wheels were already turning to protect the waters around Robben Island, he just needed to convince the government that penguin protections should also be included. Luckily, he had over a decade’s worth of data and collaboration, supported by Earthwatch, to catch the government’s attention.

Richard had been working on a study that focused on how the pressures of commercial fishing near breeding colonies affect penguin pairs and their chicks. The study was also supported by Dr. Peter Barham and his teams of Earthwatch volunteers as part of the expedition South African Penguins. In 2016, when Peter retired, Richard assumed the reigns of the expedition.

Year after year, civilians-turned-citizen scientists have given up their vacation time to kneel in guano-covered gravel while peering into penguin nests in order to make a difference in the history of these seabirds. While the fluffy faces and waddling gaits may be what draw some people in, the immense importance of these seabirds keeps many volunteers coming back year after year. Penguins are considered to be an indicator species, a species whose health indicates the conditions of their habitat. If penguins aren’t doing well, it can signal to researchers that the ecosystems that support them aren’t doing well either.

The robust long-term dataset collected by Richard and his Earthwatch teams showed that not only do more chicks survive when protected by a fishing closure, they also have a better body condition when they leave the islands. Chick survival increased by 11 percent and chick body condition by 45 percent when the colony was protected by a fishing closure, which is predicted to lead to a 20 percent larger population than if the colony was not protected.

It’s data that the government would probably not have collected had there not been an Earthwatch project.

—Rob Crawford, a researcher for the Branch Oceans and Coasts of South Africa’s Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism

“It’s the strongest evidence so far, really anywhere, that these kinds of small-scale protected areas could work,” said Richard.

With these data in hand, Richard acted quickly. He had built close relationships with the South African government, local scientists, and a number of NGOs over the last decade. This not only allowed him to disseminate the data to relevant stakeholders, but it ensured those stakeholders trusted him as a local partner and would fully consider his recommendations.

In October 2018, the Robben Island Marine Protected Area was approved, along with the 19 other proposed MPAs. The Robben Island MPA includes the originally proposed protections for the marine ecosystems, national heritage site, West Coast rock lobster, abalone, and other exploited species. And thanks to the data from the long-term closure experiments that Richard – along with his Earthwatch teams – collected, an essential line was added to the list of reasons for declaring the MPA: “to contribute to the conservation and protection of the African Penguin.” With those few words, a spark of hope for a penguin resurgence was ignited.

“It’s data that the government would probably not have collected had there not been an Earthwatch project,” said Rob Crawford, a researcher for the Branch Oceans and Coasts of South Africa’s Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism. “It contributed greatly to efforts to conserve the penguins, so we’re very grateful for that.”

The Earthwatch team was ecstatic to hear that the protections they’d been working towards for decades were finally being written into law.

“I just sort of thought at last, at last, we’re getting some kind of support, that we’re being heard a little bit,” Sue said.

Ensuring A Comeback

The official recognition of the penguins’ perilous population decline in South Africa is a major win for conservationists worldwide, but these protections are just the first step in what needs to be an international effort to bolster penguin populations globally.

“You don’t want to be lulled into this complacency that the penguins will be fine now because of these MPAs. Because it’s not all of the colonies, it’s not the whole population, and it’s not the entire life cycle. It’s great, but the work isn’t done yet,” said Lauren Waller, a former regional ecologist at CapeNature who recently joined the Earthwatch project as a staff member.


The work isn't done yet.


In February 2019, Richard was awarded a Pew marine fellowship to continue his incredible and impactful research. The $150,000 grant will fund additional population-level investigations into how fisheries interact with different ages of penguins. In continuing his partnership with Earthwatch and his close work with the South African government, Richard will ensure his findings continue to have direct impacts on policy decisions.

With the protections in the pipeline and the next stages of critical research already being planned, Richard and his team hope to see more and more penguins fearlessly leaving the coasts of their colonies and returning, fat and happy, to raise the next generation of bold sea explorers.

You can help preserve the momentum of this policy decision and help collect critical data to continue to protect these valuable seabirds. Help to ensure African Penguins have the comeback story they deserve.



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