Threat Thursday, focusing on the "Endangered" African Penguin
Threat Thursday today focuses on the African Penguin Spheniscus demersus. This species was chosen because last week the Government Gazette published the Draft Biodiversity Management Plan (BMP) for the species. The development of this BMP is enabled by an act of parliament, through legislation that was passed in 2004: National Environmental Management: Biodiversity Act, 2004 (Act No. 10 of 2004). This Act is usually referred to as NEMBA. This 72-page document can be downloaded as a pdf here.
The Introduction to the BMP states the extent of the problem: "The African Penguin was South Africa's most abundant seabird. However, it has suffered a massive reduction in abundance. The overall population may have been of the order of one million pairs in the 1920s, but it decreased to about 147 000 pairs in 1956/57, 75 000 pairs in 1978, 63 000 pairs in 2001 and 25 000 pairs in 2009. Therefore, the present population is only some 2.5% of its level 80 years ago. The species has a Red List status of Endangered because the breeding population has decreased by >50% in the three most recent generations and the decrease is continuing."
The IUCN conservation status of the African Penguin was reconsidered in 2010, when the status was changed from "Vulnerable" to "Endangered" – this change was motivated by solid quantitative evidence, it was not based on opinion or on whim. The statistical analyses which showed that the population decline over three generations exceeded 50% was undertaken by the ADU. This is the crisp criterion which has to be satisfied before a species can be tagged as "Endangered." The downward spiral "shows no sign of reversing despite conservation efforts." The bottom line looks like this: "Research has shown that shortage of food is probably the factor driving the recent decline, but it is unclear as to what is causing this shortage."
The ADU has a big investment in trying to help clarify the cause of the decline. There have been four PhDs dealing with various aspects of the this species, and each with an important conservation-relevant thrust:
Dr Phil Whittington – Survival and movements of African Penguins, especially after oiling.
Dr Jessica Kemper – Heading towards extinction? Demography of the African Penguin in Namibia.
Dr Anton Wolfaardt – The effects of oiling and rehabilitation on the breeding productivity and annual moult and breeding cycles of African Penguins.
Dr Lauren Waller – The African Penguin Spheniscus demersus: conservation and management issues.
And two PhD theses have had a large African Penguin component:
Dr Newi Makhado – Investigation of the impact of fur seals on the conservation status of seabirds at the Prince Edward Islands and off western South Africa
Dr Richard Sherley – Factors influencing the demography of Endangered seabirds at Robben Island, South Africa: Implications and approaches for management and conservation (University of Bristol, but Richard was based in the ADU).
And there is currently a large team of postgraduate students wrestling with trying to uncover the real causes of the recent decline in African Penguins. They are supported from a variety of sources, and especially the Leiden Conservation Trust. There is scope for additional support.
The Biodiversity Management Plan highlights a selection of research needs. These are becoming the ADU's agenda for African Penguin research.
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