Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens recently had the opportunity to send two of our Penguin Keepers, Roxanne Fleming and myself (Larkin Johansen), to Capetown, South Africa to assist with the rehabilitation and release of critically endangered seabirds.
SANCCOB, The Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds, started from humble beginnings almost 50 years ago and has evolved into an organization that responds to every oil spill along the entire southern African coastline. SANCCOB Table View is one of three centers that treats approximately 2,500 oiled, ill, injured, or abandoned seabirds each year. More than half of those birds are African penguins. Currently, SANCCOB has an abundance of African penguins ranging from down-covered chicks to adults. Also in their care currently is a Giant petrel, a White pelican, and numerous gulls and cormorants.
Over the last century, maritime activity has increased off the coast of southern Africa, including the transportation of oil, which largely increased when coal was replaced by oil in the 1930s. South Africa has experienced 5 of the world’s 50 major recorded oil spills, making the country one of the global hotspots for oil pollution. The oil spills put marine wildlife at risk, with the majority of marine species affected being seabirds.
The effects of oil on a bird’s health are three-fold. First, oil breaks down the ability of plumage to maintain body heat, water proofing, and buoyancy. As a result, the birds are prone to hypothermia, exhaustion, drowning (if at sea), or starvation (on land). The second issue is that oiled seabirds attempt to remove the oil by preening resulting in ingestion and leading to dehydration, gastrointestinal problems, and anemia. Lastly, the long-term effects include often irreversible lung damage, impaired reproduction, and poor survival of eggs and young.
SANCCOB has been a leader in the rescue and rehabilitation of South African seabirds and relies largely on volunteers and interns, and that’s where me and Roxanne come in! In the year 2000, over 20,000 African penguins were oiled and another 19,000 translocated following an oil spill of the bulk ore carrier MV Treasure. SANCCOB lead the largest rescue mission in history with 130 international SANCCOB team members supervising over 45,000 volunteers.
Even during a year without oil spills, the centers are busy treating injured or ill birds that are brought in by members of the public or by rangers. The center is a bee-hive of activity with no minute to spare. When they arrive, the birds are placed in a pen depending on health – Intensive Care Unit (ICU) crates for critical cases, ICU pen, 10min swimmers, 20min swimmers, or 1hr swimmers. The penguins are force-fed twice daily (to prevent the birds associating humans with enjoyable food interaction) and tubed a nutritious gruel formula to help them gain appropriate weight for their eventual release.
Each bird receives treatment and check-ups, graded on feather condition, and promoted or demoted to appropriate pens depending on their progress. One-hour swimmers are closest to release. In down time, we are filling out medical cards for the birds in our pen for that day.
Larkin force feeding a penguin.
While we were at SANCCOB, there was a release every week! Each releasing around 30 penguins back into the wild. Since 1968, SANCCOB has admitted 97,000 seabirds with 2,398 seabirds admitted between 1 January 2018 to 31 March 2019. Of those 2,398 seabirds, 398 were abandoned penguin chicks and eggs. SANCCOB achieved an 86% release rate.
Roxanne transporting penguin for release.
On my second day at SANCCOB, a Great white pelican was admitted to the center. The pelican had been called in by one of the neighboring houses in Flamingo Vlei concerned that the pelican was injured and unable to fly out of his backyard.
SANCCOB sent two of their rehabilitators to the neighbor’s house to evaluate the bird’s situation. Turns out, the pelican had a large wound on his left wing, which prevented him from flying and would need sutures in order to heal.
Upon capture, the pelican promptly regurgitated what was left of someone’s pet chicken! The rehabilitators were shocked and made a note that the pelican could only swim in the rehab pools alone in order to keep the penguin chicks safe in case he decided he wanted another bird snack.
The pelican eventually got stronger and did not like adhering to his swim schedule. On multiple occasions he broke out of his enclosure and dived into the pool full of penguin chicks taking their turn for a swim! All of the staff immediately dropped what we were doing to shuffle the pelican out of the pool and keep any panicked penguins from accidentally running into the pelican’s enclosure. He was a trip! Nicknamed “Pete the pelican” he was eventually released into a bay that was near the neighborhood he was initially found. I am happy to report Pete has not returned to the center since his release, but chickens beware!
The bay where penguins are being released.
African Penguin Colony
Written by Larkin Johansen, Senior Bird Keeper