Flourishing in Captivity, Floundering in the Wild
At the start, Sarah Misslin-Dunn sits down on a mock rock in the penguin exhibit a few feet away from the bird. She sits very still. She then moves her hand closer to the animal, but only her hand. If the penguin merely looks at it and cocks its head in a certain way, she knows it doesn’t see her approach as aggressive.
“It’s all about reading their body language,” says Misslin-Dunn, an African penguin handler at Connecticut’s Mystic Aquarium, “and that’s a sign that the bird seems to be interacting with you.” That sign gives her the confidence to try and gently touch the penguin. She’ll reach her index finger toward the penguin’s chin or neck and pretend to preen it, mimicking a social behavior in which the birds spread a water-resistant oil secreted from glands near their tails over one another’s feathers. Sometimes, when all is going well, the penguin will reciprocate, rubbing Misslin-Dunn’s hand delicately with its beak. Bonding.
In many ways, these captive birds are much luckier than the free ones. Misslin-Dunn and the other animal handlers employed at Mystic arrive every morning at 7:30 in order to prepare food for the African penguins’ prompt 9:30 AM feeding. The aquarium staff keeps the exhibit clean, closely monitors the health of the 28 resident birds, and works hard to create trusting relationships with them. And at the beginning of each year, during Mystic’s African penguin nesting season, a team of biologists watches over the mating pairs and their fragile, fluffy chicks, working to ensure the survival of all.
About 8,000 miles Southwest, however, wild African penguins along the coast of Namibia and South Africa lead a much less luxuriant lifestyle. Not only do they have to cope with the natural perils of life – traveling miles to find food, laying eggs exposed on rocky shores, and avoiding predators like sharks and seals – but they must push past these perils with enough strength to rebuild their flagging population.
The African penguin population has been in decline for nearly 100 years, but they weren’t listed as endangered until June of 2010, when they appeared on the Red List of Threatened Species compiled by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. In October of that same year, the United States listed the bird as endangered under the Endangered Species Act.
Survival has been particularly hard for African penguins since the 1930s, when people began harvesting African penguin eggs for consumption, causing the species’ first sharp decline. There were over a million pairs of penguins at that time, estimates Rob Crawford, a researcher at the University of Cape Town in South Africa who has been studying the wild birds for years. Now, roughly 26,000 pairs remain, meaning about 97 percent fewer birds survive in the wild today than did 80 years ago.
Egg harvesting alone did not decimate the African penguin population, however. The animals have come up against a gamut of threats. From the mid 1800s to the late 1900s, fertilizer-dealers collected guano from penguin breeding colonies, scraping clean the rocky islands off coastal southern Africa. African penguins once burrowed into the guano while nesting, using their own refuse as shelter for their eggs and chicks while they hunted. Without the guano, the chicks are exposed to storms and air born predators like gulls.
Egg harvesting was outlawed in the 1960s and guano harvesting ended in 1991, but two specific indirect threats plagued the animals: food competition from fisheries and oiling from oil spills. It’s these ongoing threats, Crawford says, that must be managed if wild African penguins are to survive.
African penguins’ main food sources – anchovies and sardines – are heavily fished by fishing fleets off southern Africa and are subject to coastal current fluctuations that have been lately pushing fish schools further away from the penguins. As fishermen net more and more fish near the penguins’ breeding colonies, the birds have a harder time finding food. The animals molt once a year, and during this 21-day process they don’t feed at all. So when they arrive on shore to molt, they need to be generously plump so that they have the energy to mate after the molting process. “It’s a very close call for them,” Crawford says. “They have to get it right if they’re going to keep breeding.”
Beyond struggling to find enough food, thousands of animals have also succumbed to oil spills. “Oiling has been catastrophic,” Crawford says. In the year 2000, for example, the iron-ore freighter Treasure sunk near South African penguin colonies while it was en route to China from Brazil. The damaged ship released over a thousand tons of oil, necessitating the evacuation of more than 40,000 penguins from oiled islands and beaches. That number is nearly equal to the total number of birds alive today.
Yet, wild African penguins have found some fortune in their struggle for survival. Thorough efforts by conservation agencies such as the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds, or SANCCOB, have helped keep the number of wild birds steady, though low, over the past few years. Mystic Aquarium provides funds and occasionally sends staff to help SANCCOB. Misslin-Dunn says her journey to Table Mountain, near Cape Town, in 2011 to help rehabilitate wild African penguin chicks was probably the highlight of her career.
SANCCOB removes abandoned penguin chicks from breeding colonies and hand-raises them, then releases them back into the wild. Researchers think the chicks are typically abandoned because their parents can’t find enough fish for sustenance. While she was in South Africa, Misslin-Dunn worked with an international team of volunteers to rehabilitate the chicks, many of which had health problems that she says she never sees at Mystic, mostly breathing issues and feather loss. It’s counterintuitive, but Misslin-Dunn noticed that the wild birds often seem more delicate than the captive birds. “These are birds that wouldn’t survive if they didn’t have help,” she says.
It’s a completely different breeding situation at Mystic Aquarium. On January 28, 2012, the newest addition to Mystic’s African penguin exhibit hatched in a quiet, rectangular room bedded with clean wood chips. This chick was part of a much larger plan – specifically, a Species Survival Plan (SSP). SSPs are organized by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, an international cooperative that manages captive animals. Most animals with large captive populations have SSPs.
Though African penguins are endangered, the idea behind the SSP isn’t to re-introduce birds into the wild. Rather, the purpose of an SSP is to help zoos and aquariums keep their exhibits populated without continuously collecting wild animals, says Gayle Sirpenski, Mystic’s Animal Management Specialist. Participating zoos and aquariums trade birds amongst themselves in order to maintain species diversity in the captive populations, like kids trading baseball cards.
All 800 captive birds in the African penguin SSP, which began in 1992, are cataloged in a “stud book,” Sirpenski says. The stud book contains information about each bird’s family history and genes. A specialized software program sorts through the information to match mature birds with an ideal mate, minimizing inbreeding. The program has been so successful that captive African penguins in the SSP are 98 percent diverse, a diversity Sirpenski says is “almost unheard of among Species Survival Plans.”
Mystic currently has six breeding pairs of penguins, but they aren’t all scheduled to breed every year. This year, only one pair bred, and they produced only one chick. But it’s all part of the plan. Mystic only hatched one chick last year and two in 2010. Since the animals aren’t bred for release, there’s no reason to hatch as many chicks as possible. The aquarium’s African penguin capacity is only 30 animals, so at 28 it’s almost a full house.
While Crawford says that down the line he’d “be very interested in using some of the success in captive breeding to bolster the wild population,” Sirpenski says that for now, the main way captive penguins are helping wild penguins is by being ambassadors for the species. One day Mystic’s newest hatchling might be a special guest on The Today Show or The View, alerting people to the plight of wild African penguins.
In fact, Mystic Aquarium’s African penguins spend a lot of time enriching the lives of the public, whether as guests on talk shows or in Mystic’s Encounter Programs, where aquarium visitors can spend time interacting with the penguins in a small room. Misslin-Dunn says that African penguins are naturally curious and enjoy stimulation. They also have a lot of personality.
“People think of the exhibit as one animal,” says Misslin-Dunn, but each animal is an individual. The handlers work hard to bond with the animals and are often rewarded by forming unique, trusting relationships with various birds.
Misslin-Dunn remembers how the wild African penguins she rehabilitated in South Africa acted with the ferocity of those who must fight to survive. “Wild birds are not nice,” she says. They were impatient in particular during feeding, not taking the time to distinguish between Misslin-Dunn’s hand and the food she was holding as they nipped for a bite. “I was anxious to get back home to be with my nice birds, if you will.”
“Our birds,” says Misslin-Dunn with a tinge of affection, “I like to think they have a sense of knowing that they’re safe.”