By Dave Sigworth, publicist of The Maritime Aquarium
Three years ago, when The Maritime Aquarium opened its “African Penguins” exhibit, the world’s African penguin population was considered to be vulnerable.
Today, as we feature a brief encore exhibit of these charismatic little birds, African penguins now are considered endangered.
Why? Several reasons, all of them occurring at the penguins’ native home: on Africa’s southwestern coast, where they’re found in island colonies between the Namibia border and Algoa Bay, near Port Elizabeth, South Africa. (African penguins are the only species of penguins that breed in Africa. Which leads us to remind you that not all penguins live on Antarctic ice. The native climate of African penguins is more moderate than Connecticut’s.)
Since 1930, the African penguin population has dropped from an estimated 1 million birds down to below 60,000 today. (Their numbers are said to have plunged by more than 50 percent just in the last 30 years.) This frightening trend brought a response in 2010 from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), the organization that issues the most comprehensive list of the conservation status of Earth’s plant and animal species.
The new IUCN listing – endangered – means that African penguins face a very high risk of extinction in the wild unless the circumstances threatening their survival and reproduction improve. (The IUCN has only one stronger “red flag” status: critically endangered. Next is extinct.)
According to the IUCN: “Population declines are largely attributed to food shortages, resulting from large catches of fish by commercial purse-seine fisheries, and environmental fluctuations.” In other words, people are catching the sardines and anchovies that should be – that used to be – food for the penguins. Also, those fish may be dying or moving out of the penguins’ home range because of rising water temperatures, a result of global climate change.
Steps are being taken to help. Scientists, environmental organizations, fisheries and the South African government are working on a plan to slowly restore the African penguin population. And, here in the U.S., African penguins were listed as an endangered species under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. That listing helps to put a spotlight on the penguins’ plight, puts money toward research and conservation initiatives, and offers additional oversight of activities that could harm penguins (such as importing them).
It’s an uncertain future for the birds. What The Maritime Aquarium can say for sure is 1) we’re honored to be able to exhibit them again and to bring attention to their troubles, and 2) that the special “African Penguins” exhibit will be open only through April 21. Then the penguins – four males (Moby, Devon, Doobie and Sinbad) – return to the Leo Zoological Conservation Center in Greenwich, a not-for-profit refuge for rare, threatened and endangered animals that places a focus on breeding species at risk. (Learn more at www.leozoo.org.)