Latest news

Apr 18 2014

Penguin-Watch Team
Animal Demography Unit, University of Cape Town

2014-01-28 Richard Sherley 
African penguin features in IUCN Red List's Amazing Species  

Since 2011, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has been keeping a list of 'Amazing Species' on their Red List website. The initiative is designed "to increase awareness of the enormous variety of life on our planet, and raise the profile of threatened species". In December 2013, the African penguin made the list. The IUCN produces a nice PDF for each species with links to websites where you can find out more about them and how you can help. The PDF for the African Penguin can be found here. The African Penguin was listed as Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species in 2010 and the species continues to decline at an alarming rate. For more on what you can do to help, visit SANCCOB's websiteBirdLife International's Global Seabird Programme or consider supporting the University of Cape Town's Environmental Research.  

The Amazing Species series continues in 2014 and can be followed on the IUCN's websites or directly using the Amazing Species Twitter feed:


2013-10-04 Richard Sherley 
Publications Watch: Marine Conservation on Paper 

Photo: Protected Resouces Division, Southwest Fisheries Science Center, La Jolla, California. few days ago, my attention was drawn to this article, Marine Conservation on Paper, published in Conservation Biology in 2007. It was written by an Italian Biologist who had, at the time, spent over 20 years researching dolphons in the Mediterranean. The article is in part a lament on the lack of progress in improving the state of our oceans, with particularly emphasis on Cetaceans, and in part a call to action to all of us working in Marine Biology and Conservation to get our message out there. The article tells about how, despite over 20 years of work to understand and reverse the loss of the dolphins in the Mediterranean, these charismatic animals continue to decline today. This is in the face of reasonable explanations for low cetacean densities, declining population trends, or excessive mortality from a wealth of studies, it is despite conducting a number of meetings and workshops on the problems and their solutions and despite convincing national and international governments and oragnisations to sign up to formal action plans.

The author concludes that conservation on paper is simply not enough: "colossal work is needed to set the stage for a newand widespread appreciation of nature. Only major changes in values and sensibilities will bring about the kind of political will and commitment that is implied in most action plans and workshop reports. What the marine environment needs is a mass of people who value and care about it."

The full text of the article can be read here and a new article expressing very similar sentiments from terrestrial conservation (on Orangutans) can be access here. I'm sure these are stories that will be familiar to many of you and the parallels with the case of seabirds here in South Africa is striking to me.

Remember communication to the public must go hand-in-hand with good science, resource management or conservation action. In the words of Margaret Mead, quoted in the feature article: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world: indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Photo: Protected Resouces Division, Southwest Fisheries Science Center, La Jolla, California. Thanks to Ralph Vanstreels for pointing out this article.


2013-10-02 Richard Sherley 
Data visualization released based on a new book about penguins 

The Pew Charitable Trusts has a great new data visualization on its website all about penguins. It allows you to explore the 18 species currently recognised by the IUCN and then to get a visual representation of the threats each species is facing. The information for the interactive display is based on a new book "Penguins: Natural History and Conservation" edited by Pew Marine Fellows Pablo Garcia Borboroglu, President of the Global Penguin Society, and P. Dee Boersma from the University of Washington. The book was released in June this year and contains chapters on all 18 species written by the world's leading authorities, including four authors associated to the University of Cape Town; Les Underhill, Rob Crawford and Jessica Kemper co-authored the chapter on the African Penguin, while Antje Steinfurth was co-authour on the chapter on the Galapagos Penguin along with Dee Boersma and other colleagues. There is also a video associated to the book on Pew's website and the University of Washington has also produced an accompanying video which shares the title of the book.

For more information on some of the threats faced by the African Penguin and examples of some of the research and conservation efforts being made to save this Endangered species, you can watch a video produced by Bristol Zoo on the Chick Bolstering Project, this documentary produced in 2011 by 50/50 and aired on South African TV or this recent news coverage of a BirdLife South Africa Project to track non-breeding adult penguins.


2013-09-29 Richard Sherley 
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report released 

On Friday 27 September 2013, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released the first part of its Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) on global climate change. The first part of AR5, the Working Group I contribution, was complied by a team of 259 lead authors and over 600 contributing authors from 39 countries. The report, published as Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis, provides a comprehensive assessment of the most upto date evidence and science behind the physical science basis of global climate change. According to a press release by BirdLife International, calling for ambitious respone to climate change, the report "states with greater confidence and authority than ever that climate change is happening, and that human influence on climate is clear. The evidence is stronger, thanks to more and better observations, an improved understanding of the climate system’s response, and improved climate models".

As may be expected, the report has been met with mixed reactions. According to George Monbiot, Environmental Columnist for the Gaurdian newspaper (UK) "Already, a thousand blogs and columns insist the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's new report is a rabid concoction of scare stories whose purpose is to destroy the global economy". But, the report is the concensus output of over 850 expert contributors, recieved input from more than 1000 expert reviewers and 1855 comments from 32 governments. As George Monbiot goes on to note in his article, it is "perhaps the biggest and most rigorous process of peer review conducted in any scientific field, at any point in human history" and "there are no radical departures in this report from the previous assessment, published in 2007". It is just that the evidence is now becoming overwhelming that warming and purterbation in the Earth’s climate system is unequivocal and the signature of human-driven change undeniable.

For global biodiversity, the predictions are dire. Global surface temperature change for the end of the 21st century is likely to exceed 1.5°C relative to 1850-1900 and unless emissions are cut radically there is little chance of staying below 2°C, the upper limit to prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system agreed by the United Nations Environment Programme. Heat waves are very likely to occur more frequently and last longer. Wet regions of the earth will recieve more rain, dry regions less. As the ocean warms, and glaciers and ice sheets reduce, global mean sea level will continue to rise, at an ever faster rate.

In the marine environment, global climate change in likely to lead to changes in water temperatures, circulation, sratification, nutrient input, oxygen content and ocean acidification as the oceans absorb carbon dioxide. So far, CO2 concentrations have increased by 40% since pre-industrial times, primarily from fossil fuel emissions and the ocean has absorbed about 30% of the emitted anthropogenic carbon dioxide. These changes, because of physical intolerance in many species to new environmental conditions, will lead to altered species distributions, reduced structure and diversity in marine communities and changes in species interactions. Many of these impacts are already evident and are set to get worse. For penguins, which are already amongst the most threathened groups of birds in the world, climate change is a big concern. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) currently recognises 18 species of penguin and "climate change" or "ocean warming" are recognised as current or potential threats to 10 of them on the IUCN Red List.

To find out more about how you can help the call for action, check out the responses of global NGOs like WWF and BirdLife International. The summary (36 pages) of the IPCC AR5 Working Group I contribution can be read here and the full report will be released on Monday.


2013-09-14 Richard Sherley 
Update on fledgling African Penguins tracked with satellite transmitters 

During the last three years, research scientists from the Animal Demography Unit, University of Cape, and the Department of Environmental Affairs have been tracking the initial dispersal of fledgling African penguins from colonies in South Africa and Namibia as part of the Chick Bolstering Project (CBP). In 2011, five hand-reared chicks were tracked and in 2012 three hand-reared (HR) chicks were released from Robben Island, shortly behind three wild chicks (WR) equipped on the island.

During this year, an additional 43 fledglings have been tracked, 37 WR birds from eight colonies including Halifax and Mercury Islands, Namibia, in the north and Bird and St. Croix Islands, Eastern Cape, South Africa in the east (see image above) and 6 hand-reared chicks from SANCCOB. These birds were followed for up to 100 days and gave us unprecedented insight into the habitat use of non-breeding individuals of this endangered species.

In 2011, the five HR birds tracked travelled an average of 1023 km from their points of release and location data were received for 62 days on average. In 2012, the birds travelled 734 km from their release sites on average, with location data received for an average of 68 days and in 2013, the 43 birds moved to an average of 1132 km from their colonies of origin and several devices were still transmitting at the time of writing. So far, all birds tracked (including the 10 birds tracked from Bird and St. Croix Islands, Eastern Cape) have moved predominately in a clock-wise direction around the coast (see image above). This could indicate genetic control of dispersal and the fact that birds forage on the west coast, where food may be limited, suggests minimal capacity for individual adaptation to local habitat degradation.

The initial analysis conducted on the tracking data suggested three key foraging areas, two in regions of high and reliable primary productivity, one south of Swakopmund, Namibia, and one north of Lambert’s Bay, South Africa. The final core area was on South Africa’s south coast, east of Cape Agulhas, in the area now occupied by spawning sardine and anchovy. However, this area was only used by birds originating in the Eastern Cape.

A paper detailing the tracking study and the results from the initial five-hand reared chicks was published in Endangered Species Research in July 2013 and a pre-press version can be downloaded here. The results to date were presented as a poster at the 8th International Penguin Conference in Bristol (UK) in August 2013. Further background on the project can be found here.

Acknowledgments: This study contributes to the African Penguin Chick Bolstering Project (CBP) and the SEACODE research group, Namibia. PTTs were funded by the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) and numerous donors to the CBP through SANCCOB and the Bristol Conservation and Science Foundation (BCSF). SAN Parks, Robben Island Museum, the Overstrand Municipality, CapeNature, the International Fund for Animal Welfare and our institutes aided this research. The study was approved by DEA, CapeNature, SAN Parks and UCT’s Animal Experimentation Committee. Richard Sherley was funded by the BCSF, the Earthwatch Institute, the Marine Research Institute and the Leiden Conservation Foundation.