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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)

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

Showing me a graph of normal chick development, Sherley said these chicks were way below normal. “They’d die for sure if we had not rescued them.” We rescued five penguins over 11 days, including one anemic adult.

When I left Robben Island, I visited the conservation center in Cape Town to learn more about what it does and to see what became of our rescued chicks. Nola Parsons, a veterinarian, was holding an endangered northern rockhopper penguin that had washed up on a nearby beach, way out of its normal range.

“Two of your chicks made it,” she told me, and took me to see them. After nearly two weeks, they’d put on weight and had fledged into their “baby blue” plumage. The adult penguin was still alive, too. But two of our chicks had died. “Just too far gone,” Parsons said.

As we talked, a group of schoolchildren arrived, eager to learn about penguins.

“So many seabirds are in trouble, more than most birds,” Parsons said. “Penguins may be our best ambassadors for them, and for the oceans.”

Charles Bergman wrote about wildlife trafficking in South America for the December 2009 Smithsonian.

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