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African Penguins in Namibia: a hint of courtship ©JKemper

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 30 - 80 years. Professor Darrell Abernethy, Head of the Veterinary School at Aberystwyth University is one of the 'African Penguin Health' Project’s founders.

At the beginning of the 20th 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.

By understanding disease risks, it is hoped that the African penguin can be saved from extinction.