Earthwatch scientists in South Africa are introducing a cutting-edge automatic penguin recognition system which will reduce the need for potentially harmful banding of birds.
Scientists carrying out research on Robben Island are using an automatic recognition system which records patterns of spots on the chests of adult birds through digital photography. The technique is still being tested and refined, but eventually it may be possible to monitor remotely more than 90 percent of the African penguins (Spheniscus demersus) on the island. This automated system will help to eliminate the need to band penguins, except for specific purposes such as measuring chick survival rates, when flipper bands still need to be used.
The African penguin is now an endangered species.
Lead scientist on the Earthwatch project on Robben Island, Professor Peter Barham, referring to research carried out by French scientists who had found that king penguins had 40 percent fewer chicks if they were banded, and lived shorter lives, said: "There have been several studies on the effect of banding on African penguins and Magellanics penguins which have been unable to find any significant differences between banded and unbanded penguins when it comes to breeding success. There are, however, other impacts of banding which is one reason why we want to introduce the recognition system to replace banding where possible. From time to time, for example, we find African penguins trapped by their bands."
The Earthwatch team in South Africa are also playing an important role in drawing up the first National Biodiversity Management Plan for the African penguin. Professors Peter Barham and Les Underhill, Dr. Robert Crawford and Mario Leshoro contributed to a three-day workshop in Arniston in the Western Cape in October 2010. The event was facilitated by CapeNature, a public institution with statutory responsibility for biodiversity conservation in the Western Cape, and the Department of Environmental Affairs, Oceans and Coasts. Thirty seven organisations from all spheres of penguin conservation were represented at the workshop.
In June 2010 the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) up-listed the status of the African penguin from vulnerable to endangered due to the population's recent rapid decline. It is now considered to be facing a very high risk of extinction in the wild. Current estimates place the global population at 26,000 pairs, the lowest on record, and indicative of an ongoing decline.
African penguins are released back to their colony, marked so they can be watched and tracked for scientific research.
Scientists do not yet have a clear answer as to why African penguins are declining - they believe penguins are not finding enough food, but do not know why. Current theories suggest their fish prey have moved eastward, away from the breeding colonies in the Western Cape, so that penguins have to work harder during the breeding season to find enough fish to feed their chicks; or that outside the breeding season, penguins are not able to find enough food before and after their annual moult so they are not in good enough condition to find food during the breeding season. Further, the fishing industry in the Western Cape where fish used to be plentiful may now be directly competing with the penguins for the limited fish that remain.
Professor Barham adds: "The main actions from the workshop are to carry out research to try to find the major underlying cause of the decline in food availability and to find solutions to the problem in the long term. Here we are looking at a number of options, including creating no-take zones fishing around colonies where we know the penguins are actually foraging. But foremost amongst these is an ambitious plan to hand rear chicks so that we can bolster existing colonies and if necessary create new ones in the areas where food is plentiful. The data collected by Earthwatch volunteers at Robben Island has enabled us to establish that hand-reared chicks have excellent survival rates and very good breeding success - at least as good, if not better than naturally reared chicks."
Earthwatch has supported the penguin research on Robben Island since 2001.
Find out how you can volunteer on the South African Penguins project.