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African Penguin (Spheniscus demersus) Fact Sheet: Population & Conservation Status

San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance Library fact sheet for the African penguin, Spheniscus demersus

Population Status

Ongoing and rapid population declines

  • Approximately 41,700 mature individuals, or about 20,850 breeding pairs (Birdlife International 2020)
  • According to San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance's penguin conservation partners at SANCCOB, wild African Penguin populations have plummeted from 1 million breeding pairs to a mere 23,000 breeding pairs in 2016—a decline of 97.7% (only 2% remaining) (Francois Louw, citing South African Department of Environmental Affairs: Oceans and Coasts [South Africa data] and unpublished data from Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources [Namibia data], personal communication, 2017)
  • Approximately 60% decrease in 6 years between 2001 and 2009 (from Crawford et al. 2011)
    • 1956/1957: ~141,000 breeding pairs
    • 1979/1980: ~ 69,000 breeding pairs
    • 2004/2005: ~ 57,000 breeding pairs
    • 2006/2007: ~ 36,000 breeding pairs
    • 2009: 25,000-26,000 breeding pairs


IUCN Statuses

  • Red List
    • Endangered (2019 assessment) (Birdlife International 2020)
      • Past assessments
        • 2018: Endangered
        • 2010-present: Endangered
        • 2000-2008: Vulnerable
        • 1994: Lower risk/near threatened
        • 1988: Threatened
  • Green List
    • Largely Depleted (2021 assessment) (Hagen et al. 2021)
      • "Without protected areas, the African Penguin would possibly be extinct today" (Hagen et al. 2021)
      • Species reproduces slowly but has additional potential for recovery

CITES Status

South Africa's National Environment Management: Biodiversity Act; Status: Protected


Threats to Survival

Historical threats

  • Egg harvesting (Cott 1953, Crawford and Shelton 1978, Frost et al. 1976b, Koenig 2007)
    • Eggs and birds exploited as a food source
      • Initially by expeditions of sailors bound for the East Indies (Sparks and Soper 1987)
      • Local settlers also targeted the bird for food (Cott 1953)
        • Description of early egg harvest "marches" (in Cott 1953):
          Every day in a line across the island in different directions, each man provided with a basket and a kitchen ladle tied to the end of a long stick, which he used for scooping the eggs from underneath the birds. The average number of eggs obtained in this way amounts to about 300,000 per annum. This does not include the incubated and broken eggs, so that the number taken altogether must be not less than half a million. -- Sclater 1896
    • 1900-1930: average annual egg crop exceeded 450,000 eggs, from Dassen Island alone (Frost et al. 1976b)
    • Restrictions on take and harvest location were enacted in the early to mid-1900's(Cott 1953; Frost et al. 1976b)
      • Collection continued until 1969 on Dassen Island (Cott 1953; Frost et al. 1976b)
  • Guano harvesting
    • Primarily used as a fertilizer (Crawford and Shelton 1978; Frost et al. 1976b; Koenig 2007)
    • Drove an estimated 90% reduction in population size in the early part of the 20th century
      • Reduced nesting area and quality of nesting sites (Frost et al. 1976b)
        • Resulted in lower quality burrows
        • Thicker guano at breeding sites linked to improved reproductive success in another species of Spheniscus (Paredes and Zavalaga 2001 - study on the Humboldt penguin)
  • Oiling (Adams 1994, Barham et al. 2007, Cooper 1971, Frost et al. 1976b, de V. Reit 1971)
    • Birds swim through spills at sea
    • First reported oiling occurred in 1948 (from Frost et al. 1976b)
      • Grounding of the Esso Wheeling tanker
    • Increasingly important threat due to heavier tanker traffic within the area
      • Closure of Suez Canal in 1967 resulted in re-routing of large carrier boats through waters off Africa's southern cape
      • Decades long increase in incidences of oiling followed
      • Significant oiling events have occurred each decade since the 1970s (Barham et al. 2007; Cooper 1971, ITOPF, Konings 1997)
        • Includes those following the sinking of the Kazimah, the Castillo de Bellver, the Apollo Sea, and the MV Treasure
    • Approximately 19,000 African Penguins were oiled following the sinking of MV Treasure off the west coast of South Africa in June 2000 (Barham et al. 2007; Crawford et al. 2000b)
      • Nearly 90% of these penguins were cleaned and released
      • Reproductive success of cleaned, rehabilitated penguins is of concern (reduced fledging success, 43% compared to non-oiled cohorts, 61%)
    • In 1968, South African National Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB) was established to assist in cleaning and rehabilitation of oiled penguins

Commercial fishing (Crawford and Shelton 1978; Frost et al. 1976b)

  • Drives shifts in prey species distributions
    • Take of pilchard and anchovy may necessitate dietary shifts for penguins
  • Lowers penguin reproductive success
    • Reproductive success associated with anchovy and sardine spawn
      • Population on Robben Island realized a 30% increase in reproductive success when combined spawned anchovy and sardine biomass was above two million tons (Crawford et al. 2006)
  • Impacts population size and dynamics
    • Penguins attempt to relocate colonies when numbers of fish forage decline
      • May impact colony stability or result in loss of colony numbers if other suitable locations are not available for penguins (Koenig 2007)
      • Evidence suggests African Penguins have difficulty relocating due to predation or competition for space (Crawford et al. 1990; Crawford 2013; Koenig 2007)
    • May drive African Penguins to establish mainland colonies
      • Recently established colonies located in areas where predation by terrestrial animals is high (Kemper et al. 2007; Koenig 2007)

Fur seals (David et al. 2003)

  • Compete for food
    • The diet of seals and penguins largely overlaps
      • Seals consume large quantities of pelagic fishes (including sardine, anchovy, and horse mackerel) (David 1987; Rand 1959)
  • Compete for habitat
    • Seals displace penguins on some islands, as they compete for space
  • Prey on young birds and adults (Crawford et al. 2001; David et al. 2003; Marks et al. 1997; Makhado et al. 2013)
    • Juveniles and sub-adult males prey on penguin chicks (David et al. 2003)
    • Dyer Island study found seals principally preying on adult penguins, particularly those returning from foraging to feed chicks (Makhado et al. 2013)
    • Active management of seal numbers has been advocated and implemented (David et al. 2003)

Environmental polutants

  • Pollutants detected in eggs
    • Low levels of DDE and PCB found in one study (deKock and Randall 1984)

Management Actions

Provided areas of protection

  • Receive formal protection within some nature preserves and national parks (P Whittington personal communication)
  • "No-Fishing Permitted" zones established near some islands (from Pichegru et al. 2010)
    • Exclusion of purse-seine fishing around St. Croix Island began in 2009
      • Marked changes in penguin foraging behavior resulted
        • Foraging commute distance and time declined following establishment of the zone

Take regulations

  • Collection of guano and eggs prohibited within penguin colonies (Harrison et al. 1997)

Rehabilitation of oiled birds

  • Program established through a mandate by the South African government
  • SANCCOB heads rehabilitation efforts, which have been highly successful
    • > 80% of birds admitted are returned successfully to the wild (Nel and Whittington 2003)

Ongoing research

  • Numerous studies
    • To understand feeding behavior and prey availability (eg. by Koenig 2007)
    • To assess the impacts of climate change on population of prey species (Koenig 2007)

Active management programs

  • Management to control population size of predators (Crawford et al. 2006; David et al. 2003)
  • Artificial nests provided in some colonies (from Sherley et al. 2012)
    • Benefits unclear
      • Reproductive success of provisioned colonies similar to that of colonies using natural burrows or open scrape nests
      • Provisioned birds did show greater reproductive success than those nesting under vegetative cover

Proposed actions

  • Design and implement action to control the spread of disease within breeding colonies (Crawford et al. 2006)

African Penguin Colony

African penguin colony

African Penguins on Boulders Beach near Cape Town, South Africa.

Image credit: Andrew Massyn via Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.

Page Citations

Adams (1994)
Barham et al. (2007)
Cott (1953)
Cooper (1971)
Crawford and Shelton (1978)
Crawford et al. (1990)
Crawford et al. (2000b)
Crawford et al. (2001)
Crawford et al. (2006)
Crawford et al. (2011)
Crawford (2013)
David (1987)
David et al. (2003)
de V. Reit  (1971)
deKock and Randall (1984)
Frost et al. (1976b)
Harrison et al. (1997)
Kemper et al. (2007)
Koenig (2007)
Konings (1997)
Makhado et al. (2013)
Marks et al. (1997)
Nel and Whittington (2003)
Paredes and Zavalaga (2001)
Pichegru et al. (2010)
Rand (1959)
Sherley et al. (2012)
Sherley et al. (2013)
Sparks and Soper (1987)

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