Happy World Penguin Day! As we celebrate this beloved animal species, let us take a closer look at one of the most unique breeds of penguins, the African penguins of Cape Town. Unfortunately, the conservation of these penguins is currently at a critical juncture due to human impact. However, the work of conservationists such as Martine Viljoen is providing hope for the future of this incredible bird.
African Penguins in Cape Town
African penguins are known for their striking black and white feathers and their adorable pink facial patches above their eyes. These penguins are medium-sized, standing at an average of 2 feet tall and weighing approximately 5 kg. Unlike other penguin breeds, African penguins breed in Africa, specifically in the coastal regions of Namibia and South Africa.
Cape Town is home to one of the largest populations of African penguins. These penguins are a vital part of the local ecosystem, playing a crucial role in the food chain and the coastal ecosystem. However, the population of Cape Town penguins has decreased by 70% over the last 50 years due to various human-driven factors.
One of the primary threats facing Cape Town penguins is overfishing. Overfishing causes a decline in the penguin’s food source, which means that they have to swim farther to find food. This leads to exhaustion and starvation, resulting in the death of these birds. Another significant threat to their survival is pollution, particularly oil spills. These spills can be harmful to the penguins’ feathers, leading to hypothermia, which causes the penguins to struggle to maintain their body temperature. Habitat loss caused by human activities and climate change-induced rising sea levels is also threatening the Cape Town penguins’ breeding and nesting sites.
Q&A with Martine Viljoen
I AM WATER Lead Coach, SANCCOB Volunteer and First Responder, Two Oceans Aquarium Foundation Marine Wildlife Management Assistant and WaddleOn by Marts founder. In this Q&A, Martine shares her experiences in saving these beloved penguins and her vision for their future.
Q1. What do you love most about penguins?
Through my interactions with our charismatic African penguin I have found them to be a remarkable species, showing immense resilience, perseverance and endurance in overcoming the many challenges they face out in the wild.
While listed as an endangered species I have experienced first hand how affected individuals continue to thrive and adapt to changing conditions around them to the best of their abilities, making them a testament to their power of resilience in the face of adversity. To me they’re representative and symbolic of South Africa, unique to our coastline and I can’t imagine a world without our iconic African penguin in it.
Q2. What do most people know about the African penguins?
Most people know the African penguin is a species endemic to our Southern African coastline,
previously referred to as the “jackass penguin” due to its donkey-like braying call. Though in more recent years this has been changed to the more suitable African black-footed penguin to prevent any potential confusion that may arise between the various species found globally that are similar in appearance and vocalisation to ours.
They’re found to live in colonies (both on islands and along our mainland), being of great tourism value attracting tourists from all over the world to our shores, and that they tend to mate for life (though this not always holds true).
Most importantly many are aware that African penguin are an endangered species, with their population numbers declining rapidly in recent decades. Our African penguin population has substantially declined historically due to a variety of factors, including collection of eggs and guano, habitat loss, oil spills, pollution, predation, disease and overfishing among others that continue to impact them to this day.
These factors have all contributed to the decline of African penguin populations, thankfully ongoing conservation efforts are in place to help protect and work towards restoring their habitat and population numbers.
Q3. What inspired you to become a penguin conservationist, and how did you get started in this field?
I believe I was inspired to get into conservation work in general through a variety of influences and experiences. First and foremost, never doubt the impact one’s parent has on their child in their early years; my mom frequently took me for visits to Boulders Beach penguin colony and Two Oceans Aquarium, where I had the special opportunity to experience penguins in their natural environment and then up close. This definitely had a role to play in solidifying my interest in penguin conservation work.
With this in mind Boulders Beach penguin colony holds a very special place in my heart, definitely where my love for conservation was further fueled. As it was where I experienced my first two penguin rescues, where I discovered an emaciated blue and adult with injury to its eye on separate occasions while on the beach. Guiding the rangers to these birds I was inspired by watching them in action, drawn to the hands-on, practical aspect of this conservation work. This certainly inspired my direction and future involvement in SANCCOB (The Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds) seabird rescue, rehabilitation and release efforts to this day starting from that young age.
Through volunteering (SANCCOB and Two Oceans Aquarium to name two) and exposure to wildlife rehabilitation efforts growing up these feelings and passion I felt were further reinforced, guiding me in that direction, adding to the desire to get involved to help protect both our terrestrial and marine life wherever I could.
I feel a deep love and respect for our phenomenal African penguins, having seen firsthand the impact that our human activities can have on our wildlife and the urgent need for intervention and protection. I am very thankful and appreciative of the experiences I have had the opportunity to have, learning from incredible rehabbers, researchers, animal keepers, rangers, educators, photographers and storytellers in the conservation field has allowed me to gain valuable knowledge and experience.
Ultimately one must learn it’s possible to live your passion and most importantly to encourage others to live theirs. This is something that is constantly highlighted to me in our I AM WATER ocean guardian workshops, seeing our future conservationists and leaders building their own love for our oceans and all its creatures, with our work hopefully inspiring their own passion to protect and respect our oceans.
Q4. What are some of the biggest challenges you have faced in your work, and how have you addressed them?
Conservation work in general can be both incredibly rewarding and incredibly challenging, though don’t let that stop you.
One of the biggest challenges faced by those working in the conservation field is the often unpredictable and rapidly changing nature of the work. In a crisis situation, such as an oil spill or mass chick abandonment, responders may be called upon to work longer hours, to aid in the rescue and care of those animals affected. Through my various roles at SANCCOB (volunteer, intern, staff, first responder) I have always felt incredibly uplifted seeing the incredible response from the general public in such crisis situations, seeing both new and experienced faces alike rising to the challenge, their collective dedication motivating and driving one through those hours. So while still a challenge, it is important to always remember that this is the function rescue, rehab and release programmes were formed for, this is the role they play, making it all the more important to remember the value these organisations hold and show your support for them in any way you are capable of.
Another challenge faced by those working in conservation is the to be expected mortalities one experiences; my approach to this is a soft reminder to all that animals in need of assistance are already in such a compromised state to have been rescued, may be suffering beyond any specialised care, that even with one’s best efforts they may not survive. One certainly builds a great deal of resilience and determination over time to enable one to continue with the important work needing to be done at the time. I take my hat off to the inspiring veterinary specialists and rehabbers I have the special experience to know, knowing though this is a challenge it doesn’t stop them from persevering, knowing the work is making that difference to a species in need. This is only further highlighted by the incredible success rates for instance SANCCOB and Two Oceans Aquarium Foundation Turtle Conservation Centre work hold, and that I am inspired to have been able to have been a part of both their teams.
The biggest challenge is the one our African penguins are facing out in the wild; with scientists predicting that their species could be ‘functionally extinct’ in the wild within the next 15 years.
Q5. How have you seen the Cape Town penguin population change during your time working with SANCCOB, and what do you attribute these changes to?
The sad reality is that the African penguin species is in crisis, with populations along our coastline noted at an all-time low, with approximately 10 000 breeding pairs recorded remaining in the wild in South Africa (Update from SANCCOB Integrated Report 2021-2022). This indicates a population loss greater than 95% from historic numbers recorded. [This decline can be attributed to factors mentioned in Q2]
Q6. What is your proudest achievement in your work with penguin conservation, and why?
While I can’t single out one specific achievement, up with my proudest moments have been having the opportunity to visit various seabird islands, such as Robben Island, Dassen Island, and Lambert’s Bay, to assist researchers (SANCCOB, BirdLifeSA, DFFE etc) with their hands on fieldwork. These experiences have given me valuable insight and understanding into the lives, behaviours and habitats of our wild African penguins and other seabirds that call these colonies home.
Furthermore, I feel proud to have launched my own WaddleOn by Marts local penguin sock brand, enabling me to contribute to SANCCOB’s seabird rehabilitation efforts even when working elsewhere. It’s given me a unique and creative way to give back to conservation work close to my heart, having managed to allow me to give back through donating approximately R50 000 funds to SANCCOB during this past year. We all have the ability to make a lasting positive impact for years to come through our own unique ventures to support conservation work close to our hearts.
Q7. How do you involve local communities in your conservation efforts, and why is this important?
Science communication plays a crucial role in aiding ones conservation work within a local community, as allows one to raise awareness through promoting understanding and empowering others to take actions based on scientific evidence they would potentially not have had access to otherwise. I have found social media to be a valuable tool for sharing this information, raising awareness through photography and storytelling, enabling one to reach out further in ones community. I have seen the positive impact of involving ones local communities in conservation efforts, as they can be essential as the first call for support in such a case as a crisis response.
With the various organisations I have been involved with this has been successfully done through training of volunteers and interns as this goes both ways in allowing for upliftment and skill building, as well as providing hands on support within a centre. Additionally, through providing educational outreach programmes and giving talks to local schools and organisations this helps raise awareness and inform others on the threats our African penguins are facing and how each and everyone of us can contribute to their protection. Organising involvement in beach cleanups helps all realise the important impact we have on our marine life through our actions on land. Ultimately by involving the community around you in these ways, you are creating a sense of ownership and responsibility for others to actively go out of their way to protect and raise further awareness, which can only result in long term benefits to the protection and preservation work trying to be achieved.
Q8. How does SANCCOB’s conservation breeding program work, and what impact has it had on the Cape Town penguin population?
SANCCOB runs their Chick Bolstering Project aimed at increasing the existing population of African penguins out in the wild as part of their conservation intervention work. Their chick bolstering work involves the rescue and artificial rearing of eggs (rescued in collaboration with rangers due to unsafe nesting, extreme weather events or abandonment by their parents) from wild nests, which are then incubated and hatched in a controlled environment. Once the chicks hatch, they are hand-reared by skilled team members (staff and interns) who provide them with the essential food and care they require until they are strong enough to move across the SANCCOB Nursery, Rehabilitation pens then released back into the wild – the most phenomenal experience if you have the privilege to witness! SANCCOB’s program also involves the release of adult birds that have been rehabilitated after being rescued and treated for injuries or illnesses. These rehabilitated penguins are released at colonies in marine protected areas where they can thrive without being threatened by human interference.
Q9. What is your strategy for rehabilitating injured or sick penguins?
I am truly thankful over the years to have received essential training from SANCCOB’s exceptional team to support in their rescue, rehabilitation and release efforts.
SANCCOB has a well-established strategy for rehabilitating injured or sick penguins. Their various centres situated along our South African coast are equipped with specialised facilities and trained staff to provide medical care and rehabilitation to support sick, injured, or oiled penguins of all ages (egg, chick, blue, juvenile, adults)
When a penguin is found injured or sick, it is transported to one of SANCCOB’s centres, where it undergoes a thorough medical assessment by their team. Based on the assessment diagnosis, a treatment plan is put together that may include medication, surgery or other forms of specialised care.
During their rehabilitation, the penguins are kept in a controlled environment where they receive regular feedings and medical attention according to their needs. Once they have fully recovered, they are released back into the wild in a protected area, where rangers in the area can monitor them to ensure that they are thriving. Overall, SANCCOB’s rehabilitation strategy is aimed at ensuring the long-term survival of the African penguin, with the purpose to always release these birds back into the wild.
Q10. How does the work of organisations like SANCCOB fit into the broader context of global Penguin conservation efforts?
SANCCOB together with other international seabird conservation organisations play an important role in the broader context of global seabird conservation efforts. Seabirds play a crucial part in marine ecosystems, with their populations acting as indicators of the health of the oceans.
Therefore, actions done by these organisations to conserve seabirds are widely interconnected with broader global conservation efforts for our oceans and other marine life health that has knock on effects to our own human health and the livelihood that depend on our oceans.
Collaboratively, the work of these organisations is crucial to achieving global conservation goals and ensuring the long-term survival of not only our African penguins but also all those identified as important species.
Q11. What can individuals do to help support penguin conservation, both locally and globally?
Individuals can play more of a vital role in supporting penguin conservation work than they think; this can be both locally and globally. Here are some ways to get involved:
– Volunteering and Interning
– Choosing sustainable seafood
– Protecting and respecting Marine Protected Areas (MPAs)
– Reducing plastic use at home and work; reduce, reuse, recycle, repurpose
– Supporting policy change
– Supporting conservation organisations through donations or fundraising efforts
– Performing or joining a beach cleanup
– Educating others to do the same
Overall, a little goes a long way; collectively we can make a much larger impact than alone.
Q12. What do you see as the biggest threats to penguin populations in the future, and how can we address them?
Ongoing, lack of food availability and the harsh realities of climate change are major threats African penguins are facing out in our oceans. Overfishing has resulted in a decline in availability of anchovies and sardines that predominantly make up African penguins diet, with significant shifts in fish distributions and abundance owed to changes in ocean temperatures caused by climate change.
These changes have had a significant impact on the African penguin populations, resulting in them having to work harder, travelling even further to find food, which can result in lowered reproductive success and weakened immune systems.
To address these ongoing issues, conservationists are working hard at promoting sustainable fishing practices and safeguarding critical foraging habitats surrounding penguin breeding grounds. Further research is ongoing to better understand the impacts of climate change on African penguin populations to develop strategies for mitigating these impacts where we can.
Q13. What advice would you give to someone who is interested in pursuing a career in penguin conservation or wildlife conservation more broadly?
If you’re interested in pursuing a career in conservation, there are several things you can do to get started. First, consider volunteering or interning with a conservation organisation or wildlife rehabilitation centre as I started doing when I was in school. This will allow you to gain hands-on experience, valuable addition to your CV and help you start forming your own connections in the field. This is also a great approach to determine whether conservation work is the direction you want to go into in place of going straight into a degree you are uncertain will be right for you in the long run – I’ve seen this happen to a number of people I know.
While practical experience is phenomenally valuable, if you have the opportunity to do so study a degree or diploma in conservation related field, I myself did my BSc Biodiversity and Ecology Undergraduate and Honours at Stellenbosch University. This will provide you with a solid foundation of knowledge and skills that will aid you towards getting positions following graduating.
Forming connections and networking in the industry is beyond important. Through attending conservation conferences, joining professional organisations, to reaching out to researchers or facilities whose work you feel inspired to be a part of. This can easily lead to job opportunities and collaborations down the line as it has done for me.
And if you are passionate about making a difference though your skills lie in another way, it’s important to know there are so many alternative ways one can contribute; through fundraising, construction, social media storytelling and photography, teaching, tour guiding, you can take almost any career path and direct it towards supporting conservation efforts in need of the extra assistance.
Q14. In a perfect world what would the ideal penguin situation look like?
By working together, we can help to ensure that the African penguin and other endangered species have a future in our world, that our future generations will be able to observe these magnificent creatures out in the wild, as they should be.
In 2021, Netflix released a docuseries called “Penguin Town,” which highlighted the Cape Town penguins and their unique behaviours. The series follows the daily lives of a group of African penguins as they navigate their environment and face the various challenges of survival. It also features the conservation efforts of SANCCOB and the work of Martine Viljoen.
The series has been well-received, bringing much-needed attention to the conservation of the Cape Town penguins. It showcases the importance of these animals and their role in the local ecosystem while highlighting the need for conservation efforts to ensure their survival.
The Future of Cape Town Penguins
Despite the many challenges facing Cape Town penguins, there is hope for their future. The work of conservationists such as Martine Viljoen and organisations like SANCCOB is making a significant impact on the survival of these penguins. SANCCOB’s conservation breeding program and rehabilitation efforts are providing a lifeline for the species, increasing their population and helping them thrive.
However, more needs to be done to ensure the long-term survival of these penguins. It’s essential to address the root causes of the decline in the population, including overfishing, pollution, habitat loss, and climate change. Continued conservation efforts and education are vital in protecting these beloved animals and their ecosystem.