Make Way for the African Penguins

Few places let you get as close to the raffish birds—many of which are endangered—as South Africa’s Robben Island

Off the coast of Cape Town, Robben Island is home to African penguins, whose future is by no means assured. (Ariadne Van Zandbergen / Africa Imagery)
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In my nearly two weeks with Sherley, he surveyed nests, conducted penguin counts and rescued birds—not just penguins but also gannets, cormorants and petrels—that looked sick or in trouble.

We put the penguin chick in a green bag, careful to avoid both ends of the bird, and weighed it on a fish scale—about five pounds. Its flippers were just over seven inches long. Through the morning, we weighed and measured 21 chicks, part of a study on the condition and growth rates of the babies. “To see if they’re properly nourished,” Sherley explained.

He handed me the chick to put back in the nest. It was tough and well-muscled, like a stocky Jack Russell terrier. I set it down near its nest and it scurried to its nest-mate. They merged into a single, indistinguishable pile of gray down.

One of the biggest misconceptions about penguins is that they live on ice. Their name conjures up images of the South Pole and long marches through the Antarctic winter. In fact, only 2 of the 17 penguin species are exclusively Antarctic birds, and only 5 species can be found there. The rest live throughout the Southern Hemisphere. One species, the Galápagos penguin, ventures just north of the Equator.

The African penguin occurs from Namibia down the coast to the cape of South Africa, mainly on offshore islands. Only four colonies are on the mainland. In 1985, a bunch of penguins established a breeding colony on a breathtaking beach near Simon’s Town, on False Bay, a short drive from Cape Town. A boardwalk now allows hundreds of thousands of tourists every year to enjoy the birds’ antics. They may be the most urban penguins in the world.

The African penguin was the first kind of penguin documented in European history. On November 22, 1497, an anonymous member of Vasco da Gama’s crew recorded seeing “birds as big as ducks, but they cannot fly.” He continued: “These birds, of whom we killed as many as we chose . . . bray like asses.”

The encounter prefigured the exploitation of the penguins throughout their range over the next several centuries by explorers, whalers and settlers; they slaughtered the birds for food or collected their eggs to eat. Others gathered the guano for fertilizer, a practice that also removed soil and prevented penguins from digging burrows for nests.

On Robben Island, there was so much hunting and harvesting that the penguins disappeared by the late 1800s. They began to return only in the 1980s, well after the island had been turned into a notorious political prison and been made off-limits to hunters.

Overall, though, the African penguin made it into the 20th century in good shape. “Early photographs show that penguins covered their islands in unspeakable numbers,” Sherley told me. The decline is so dramatic that it’s worth giving in some detail.

In 1910, the penguin population in all of Africa was between 1.5 million and 3 million.


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