Penguins Return to South African Islands After Oil Spill
CAPE TOWN, South Africa, July 19, 2000 (ENS) - African penguins that
were evacuated and treated after the world’s worst oil spill to affect
coastal birds, are returning to clean nesting grounds off the southern
coast of South Africa.
When the 144,000 ton bulk ore carrier The Treasure sank off the tip of
South Africa on June 23 it spewed an estimated 400 tonnes of heavy fuel
oil into the ocean. On June 25 the oil came ashore at Robben Island, the
former prison where Nelson Mandela spent many of his 26 years in jail
that is now home to more than 20,000 wild African penguins.
By June 27 the oil had also surrounded Dassen Island, home to a further
40,000 African penguins. Thousands of penguins became oiled.
The islands are home to almost half of the world’s population of African
penguins (Spheniscus demersus). Seabirds always suffer in oil spills but
penguins are particularly vulnerable because they cannot fly and spend
their time at sea on the surface.
The Panamanian registered vessel had been en route to China from Brazil.
It is owned by Universal Pearl of South Africa, the same company that
owned the Apollo Sea, a bulk ore carrier that sank off South Africa’s
West Coast in 1994, causing extensive pollution to the coastline and
killing 5,000 penguins.
With the situation worsened by the fact that it is the penguin’s
breeding season, the latest accident unleashed a full scale evacuation
of the birds coordinated by the International Fund for Animal Welfare
(IFAW), Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) and South African National
Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB), the world
expert in cleaning oiled penguins.
Rescuers had to evacuate the birds rather than allowing them to leave
the islands for the oily seas.
The evacuation involved the South African armed forces, government
conservation and environment agencies, volunteers and bird experts from
around the world. Logistics ranged from seconding aircraft to finding
toothbrushes - all to preserve a species listed as vulnerable by the
World Conservation Union (IUCN).
The combined effort helped evacuate more than 17,000 African penguins.
Oiled penguins were collected by a team of volunteers and taken to
cleaning facilities in Cape Town, on the South Africa mainland, where
more volunteers began the laborious task of cleaning them.
Thousands of penguins were oiled after The Treasure sank, June 23.
Clean penguins were rounded up and placed in specially designed
transportation boxes that were flown by helicopter to trucks. They were
then taken on a 14 hour journey to a release site at Port Elizabeth
about 900 kilometers (500 miles) away from the oil spill. There, they
were tagged and released into the clean waters of Algoa Bay.
Further threat of oiling was removed during the two weeks it took the
penguins to swim back to Robben and Dassen islands. Three of the
penguins released in Algoa Bay, were tagged with small rucksack-like
Data from penguins Peter, Pamela and Percy revealed their progress this
week. On Tuesday morning, Peter’s satellite tag reported that he was at
on Robben Island. Percy passed Robben Island yesterday, and was only a
few kilometers short of Dassen Island at midnight, South African time.
He is thought to be ashore today.
Pamela is just east of Cape Agulhas, the southern tip of Africa, leaving
Indian Ocean waters for the South Atlantic where the islands are
The Western Cape Nature Conservation Board, the authority in charge of
Dassen Island, confirmed Monday that a group of 12 penguins had arrived
back on the island after spending about 15 days at sea. These birds are
of the same group that were released from Port Elizabeth between June 2
Of the 12,345 uncontaminated birds that were evacuated from Dassen
Island, Western Cape Nature Conservation staff on the Island ringed 643
penguins and have been monitoring the West Bay, Whale Bay and House Bay
penguin landing strips to witness the return of the birds.
Many untagged birds may have arrived elsewhere on Dassen Island and
conservators are estimating that up to half the amount of penguins
evacuated may already have made their way back.
In busy shipping areas like South Africa, oil spills often damage
penguins’ feathers, causing them to lose their insulating,
water-repellent quality. Penguins may freeze or starve if they cannot
swim to catch food. Penguins also ingest oil, which is fatal. De-oiling
birds is a time consuming, exacting process but it gives the creatures
an 85 percent chance of survival.
The African penguin, known also as the jackass penguin because of the
donkey-like braying noise it makes, was more plentiful a century ago
when the population numbered about 1.5 million. Now only 10 per cent of
them remain, concentrated on islands like Robben and Dassen.
Last month’s rescue mission was the largest of its kind in the world and
the final cost is expected to run into millions of US dollars.
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