New health research to help save African penguins from extinction

African Penguins in Namibia, a hint of courtship ©J Kemper

African Penguins in Namibia, a hint of courtship ©J Kemper

03 June 2021

Research involving Aberystwyth University academics is investigating the part disease and pollution are playing in the decline in the African penguin population, a species which faces extinction within the next thirty to eighty years.

The international project looking at the health reasons for the ongoing fall in the birds’ numbers has kicked off with an official launch and the start of field surveys.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, the population of this species of penguins was estimated at more than three million. However, excessive egg and guano collection, and more recently, lack of fish due to industrial fishing and environmental changes, has decimated the population.

By 2009, only 26,000 breeding pairs remained, resulting in the birds being classified as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Today, there are fewer than 20,000 pairs, less than 3% of the numbers 100 years ago.

While many key threats to the penguins are well known, and huge efforts made to address them by government and private agencies, little is known about health and disease threats to the species.

A group of international partners, called ‘African Penguin Health’, are conducting research in five areas in an effort to discover the health causes of the population decline.

That work includes conducting a health survey of the penguins by examining wild birds, taking a range of samples for analysis, looking for toxic chemicals in dead birds, monitoring coastlines and colonies using citizen science and drones, stakeholder assessments and modelling population changes.

So far, birds from two colonies – Dassen Island in South Africa and Halifax Island in Namibia – have been sampled.

Professor Darrell Abernethy, Head of the new Veterinary School at Aberystwyth University and one of the African Penguin Health Project’s founders commented:

“African penguins are facing extinction in the wild within our lifetime. Policies and conservation efforts based on the latest science are of essential importance to conserve this iconic species.

“Little is known about the effect of disease and other health threats on the sustainability of the population. An outbreak of avian influenza in 2018 and 2019 killed hundreds of birds and showed how colonies can be affected by the disease. To learn more about these effects, we have recruited leading experts to undertake a series of studies to obtain and analyse critical data in order to support agencies as they work towards a common goal: saving the African penguin from extinction.”

The project follows a ‘One Health’ approach, namely a public health stance that recognises that the health of people is closely connected to the health of animals and our shared environment. Professor Abernethy added:

“The project, even at this early stage, has already demonstrated the value of working collaboratively, using a ‘One Health’ approach. We are grateful to all the funders and partners who are supporting this vital research.”

The team working on the project includes researchers from a large number of organisations around the world. These include Aberystwyth University, Freie Universität in Berlin, South Africa National Parks, the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds, the University of Namibia and the University of Pretoria.

The project has received financial support from the German Government (GIZ, Meerwissen), the Hans Hohesien Charitable Trust and the National Geographic Society.

Dr Stephen van de Spuy, Chief Executive Officer at SANCCOB, added:

“Understanding disease risks in this endangered species is an important puzzle piece in our efforts to save this species and other endangered seabirds from extinction. SANCCOB is proud to be part of such an international team of experts looking into penguins’ health.”