African Penguins at risk of extinction

Cape Town's penguin population plummets in last decade

The population of African Penguins has dropped by 90 per cent since 2004, with only 100,000 of the birds left in South Africa and neighbouring Namibia, the only two countries where the species exists.

The decline of the penguins, Africa's only flightless bird species, coincides with an unexplained southern shift in anchovies and sardines away from the penguin colonies along South Africa's Atlantic coast.

The departure of the fish stocks led to South Africa's environment ministry introducing an experimental fishing ban in 2008 within a 20-km radius of four key penguin colonies: Robben and Dassen Islands in the Atlantic Ocean and St Croix and Bird Islands in the Indian Ocean. However the measures do not seem to have halted the birds' continuing decline.

The penguins must swim further to reach the shoals of anchovies and sardines – their principal food – leaving the adult birds weakened and their chicks often abandoned.

In 1900 there were 1.5 million African Penguins on the Dassen Island colony alone but by the late 1970s their total population was about 220,000 adult birds. By 2010 the species had been declared endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

The initial reasons for their decline was the collection of penguin eggs and guano but by the 1990s the threat to their existance had switched to commerical fishing and oil pollution.

Conservationalists now warn that if authorities fail to carry out effective management of the penguins then the birds could face extinction.

Much-photographed by Cape Town tourists, the black and white birds are also known as the Black-footed Penguin or the Jackass Penguin thanks to their distinctive donkey-like bray.