Conservation & Science

SOS for South African penguins

Aviculture Curator Aimee Greenebaum worked with the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s African penguins for more than a decade before ever seeing one in the wild. She was in South Africa last fall to help rehabilitate sick and injured penguins and feed starving chicks. She’s quick to point out that it’s less glamorous than it sounds.

Aviculture Curator Aimee Greenebaum spent long days force-feeding fish to rescued penguins. Photo by Richard Kruger.

“They don’t smell good, I’m not gonna lie,” Aimee says with a laugh. But, she adds, “They’re pretty cool. They’re tough little birds.”

Aimee worked for several weeks with the South African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB)—the leading conservation organization working to recover this endangered species. African penguins, which stand around two feet tall, don’t hail from the land of snow. The weather at the southern tip of the continent is a lot like Monterey, Aimee says.

Up to 80 rescued penguins per pen awaited a meal from volunteers like Aviculture Curator Aimee Greenebaum. Photo by Richard Kruger

She spent hours each day hunched on a stool, in pens that held 70 or 80 rescued penguins, corralling one bird at a time between her knees. Many required force-feeding.

“These are wild penguins,” she explains. “Our penguins on exhibit know to take fish from our hand. Wild birds aren’t going to do that.”

Angry bites (and a beating, too)

African penguins can bite hard enough to draw blood, and an angry one will hang on and beat you with its wings, Aimee says. Besides coveralls and goggles, Aimee wore protective gear on her arms to guard against bites, and a leather glove on one hand. The other hand, she says “is free to grab fish and force it down their throat.”

Aimee Greenebaum and other volunteers in the penguin rescue program had to prep the fish to feed the birds as part of their duties. Photo by Richard Kruger.

As the Aquarium’s curator of birds, Aimee says she acquired a new set of skills, ones she can apply in Monterey in the rare event that one of the Aquarium’s 19 resident penguins falls ill: “I got so much experience dealing with sick penguins, I feel like I could do it in my sleep now.”

The day she released some of the penguins she’d helped care for, her team went to Boulders Beach, in Cape Town. They opened several transport boxes near the water’s edge and watched the birds walk into the ocean.

After release, the penguins quickly rejoin their wild counterparts. Photo courtesy Ian Wilson, SANCCOB

“They just go meet up with the colony,” Aimee says.” It was so cool to look over 50 feet and see other wild penguins nesting.”

Watching these birds lie on the beach (and sometimes squabble) reminded Aimee of the penguins in the Aquarium’s Monterey colony. They play a vital role as ambassadors to the public, she says, and as part of a Species Survival Plan involving a host of leading North American aquariums and zoos.

“Everyone loves penguins, everyone knows what a penguin is—they’re so cute,” she says. “A lot of people don’t realize they’re endangered, and if things keep going the way they are in the wild, this captive population will be the only thing keeping them from going extinct.”

Invest in the Nest

The wild African penguin population has fallen by more than 97 percent in the past century.

A campaign by the Association of Zoos and Aquarium raised close to $200,000 for nest boxes to help the penguin population recover.

“It’s thought there used to be over a million breeding pairs, and now there are only 25,000,” Aimee says.

One factor is overfishing, which has left Africa’s only penguins with less food. Climate change may also be playing a role, she says, because, “Warmer waters cause what fish there are to move elsewhere, out of the penguins’ (swimming) range.”

They are vulnerable to other threats, too. A single oil spill along South Africa’s coast has the potential to affect thousands of penguins, Aimee says.

The Aquarium took part in last year’s Invest in the Nest campaign to address one major challenge to the penguins’ recovery: a lack of appropriate, safe nesting areas where they can lay their eggs and rear their chicks.

In the absence of suitable nesting burrows, penguins in colonies on Boulders Beach near Cape Town ilay their eggs on the sand. The eggs are more vulnerable to overheating, and to predators.

The campaign generated funds to deploy artificial nest boxes as replacements for burrows the penguins dug in the mountains of guano on their historic nesting grounds. Strange as it sounds, the birds depended on guano left behind by generations of their predecessors to successfully rear their chicks, Aimee says.

“If you can picture the ground just covered in layers and layers of bird poop, the penguins would burrow into it as a kind of shelter, to provide protection against rain and heat,” she says. “In its absence, with bare rock left behind, nests overheat and flood.”

The campaign, launched by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), raised close to $200,000 on Kickstarter. Donors could earn rewards for their contributions—including a “penguin party” with the birds in Monterey.

With the funds, SANCCOB is placing 2,000 artificial nest boxes on beaches in South Africa and Namibia.

Species Survival Plan

The Aquarium is also part of AZA’s Species Survival Plan, in which partner aquariums and zoos breed African penguins in order to preserve genetic diversity in the captive population. Two chicks that hatched earlier this year are offspring of the four approved breeding pairs in Monterey. They may eventually find permanent homes at other aquariums and zoos that are part of the Species Survival Plan.

Monty and Poppy, the two newest chicks to hatch in the Aquarium’s penguin colony, are part of a collaborative Species Survival Plan for African penguins.

Aimee hopes the birds in the Aquarium’s penguin colony connect visitors to the broader importance of keeping the ocean healthy.

“Fishing sustainably, decreasing our carbon footprint, not creating trash that ends up in the ocean, reducing the amount of plastic you’re using. It all makes a difference,” she says.

And she’s glad that she and her team have been given the opportunity to travel to South Africa to help with rescue and recovery efforts for the birds’ wild kin.

“It’s really neat to realize the Aquarium is sending staff to help rehabilitate penguins,” she says.

—Daniel Potter

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