Few can argue the feeling of absolute delight one experiences when the stout penguin in its tuxedo-like pelt, waddles by on its way to surf the waves. Such was the feeling of excitement at Plett’s 4th African Penguin release recently, when two adult penguins and eight blues were released back into the wild. But there’s so much more to the eventual release than meets the eye, according to Dr Mark Brown, director of the Nature’s Valley Trust (NVT). Working closely with Tenikwa Wildlife Rehabilitation & Awareness Centre, Dr Brown explains a few crucial steps in the rehabilitation process.
Typically, four or more penguins are released at a time and this year, the projection is to do at least three such releases. The factors that necessitate rehabilitation of the birds are varied. Mostly birds that require assistance in Plett are either sick, injured, moulting or have what Dr Brown calls “flat battery syndrome”.
Penguins can be affected by a range of illnesses, but the ones most often encountered locally appear to be babesia, a tick-borne blood parasite, and avian malaria. Injuries range from minor cuts and scrapes that may affect mobility or waterproofing of feathers, to more serious wounds inflicted by either other animals, or by entanglements or boat propellers. Moulting birds come ashore to grow a new set of feathers, during which time they cannot swim as their waterproofing is affected. Being on the mainland means exposure to predators, both natural and companion animals, so birds are safely kept in captivity until their moult is finished.
The flat battery cases are often down to bad body condition (underweight) and dehydration – they just need some TLC to get back on track and that’s where Tenikwa comes to the rescue.
At this stage, tagging the penguins are a very expensive option, however Tenikwa does microchip every bird that gets released, which enables them to track if a particular individual comes back into rehab, is located by researchers at one of the breeding colonies, or washes up dead on our shore. The NVT team has a mobile scanner and try to scan every dead penguin reported to them. Chances are high that most of the penguins are from the breeding colony in Port Elizabeth.
Penguins move around a lot when not breeding, so it is not uncommon to encounter large numbers of penguins at sea in Plett. Presumably, they will stay as long as there’s enough food. Normally, African Penguins will eat around 500g per day, but this can increase to over a kilogram per day when breeding.
Sadly, not every penguin that comes into rehab can or will be able to be released back into the wild. Tenikwa has a few long-term captives that are a permanent part of their animal collection, and that play an important role in educating the public about these beautiful birds.
Others sadly succumb to their illnesses or injuries. The development of a breeding colony in Plett is definitely still one of the strategies BirdLife South Africa has in place to secure the species in the long term. A colony is currently being developed at De Hoop, and behind the scenes work with Cape Nature and the Department of Environmental Affairs, along with key stakeholders, around a Plett colony are still ongoing.