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MCM Press Release, 29 June 2000

Rescue of Seabirds in Western Cape

Treasure sank in the early hours of 23 June 2000. Oil washed ashore on Robben Island on 25 June and surrounded Dassen Island on 28 June. Dassen Island supports the largest breeding colony of African Penguins, a species classified as Vulnerable because of a massive decrease in numbers during the 20th century. Robben Island supports the third largest colony of this species. Between them, the two islands support about 21000 breeding pairs, in excess of 50000 adults and 40% of the world population of the species.

It is peak breeding season for African Penguins off western South Africa, and it is estimated that perhaps 20000 chicks are being brooded or fed at these two localities.

On 28 June, oil was moving northwards, threatening colonies in the vicinity of Saldanha. About 60 oiled birds have already been reported from Jutten Island in West Coast National Park. Staff of Marine and Coastal Management (Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism) will be inspecting Vondeling Island on 29 June 2000, to assess the situation there and collect any penguins that are oiled.

The largest previous oiling of penguins in South Africa was in June 1994 when the Apollo Sea sank between Dassen and Robben islands. About 10000 penguins were oiled, of which about 5000 were successfully returned to the wild.

Other seabirds are also affected by the present oil spill, including three species of cormorant that are endemic to southern Africa. The world populations of Crowned Cormorant and Bank Cormorant number just 3000 and 5000 breeding pairs respectively. Cape Cormorant is more plentiful. Robben Island supports South Africa's third largest colony of Bank Cormorant, about 120 breeding pairs.

A national committee, chaired by Mr Horst Kleinschmidt, Deputy Director-General in Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism, and including representation from Cape Nature Conservation, South African National Parks, Robben Island Museum, South African Defence Force, Southern African National Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB) and University of Cape Town, has been set up to manage the crisis facing the seabirds. The Minister of Environmental Affairs and Tourism is being regularly briefed on developments.

As the care and treatment of oiled seabirds is enormously time consuming, it has been decided to remove as many penguins as possible from the vicinity of the oil to an un-oiled environment. Not only is oil ashore at Dassen and Robben islands, but oil is also present in the feeding grounds of penguins from these two islands. Therefore, attempts are being made to catch un-oiled penguins and to transport them to Algoa Bay in Eastern Cape. During the night of 27 June, 157 clean penguins were trucked to Cape Recife. All arrived alive. Of these, 143 were returned to the wild and 14 were retained by staff of Bayworld, Port Elizabeth, who are supervising release of penguins in Algoa Bay, for cleaning of light spots of oil. A further 160 are awaiting transportation. Additionally, 4500 un-oiled penguins are being held at Dassen Island, awaiting transport from the island. It is planned to try to fence most of the penguin breeding areas at Dassen Island to keep many more un-oiled birds from leaving for sea.

The large-scale translocation of penguins to an alternative site is an experimental process necessitated by the very large numbers of birds at risk. It is vitally important to monitor the subsequent survival and movements of these birds. Animal Demography Unit at University of Cape Town is co-ordinating the banding of a large number of penguins to be translocated to Algoa Bay.

African Penguins are known to have a strong homing instinct, but it is considered essential by government, conservation authorities and SANCCOB to monitor whether birds return from Algoa Bay to Western Cape and, if so, the rate at which they do this so that the period they are outside the area affected by oil may be ascertained. On 27 June, World Wide Fund For Nature (WWF), South Africa, secured sponsorship from a corporate donor to track via satellite the movements of three penguins to be released in Algoa Bay. The three instruments to be attached to the penguins have a value of R 60000. The corporate donor is SAP Africa, a leading company in C-commerce and inter-enterprise software. Its managing director, Mr George Ortel approved the donation on request and said he was "only too happy that SAP Africa could make an immediate contribution towards validating this innovative conservation intervention".

Although many penguins will be translocated to Algoa Bay, more than 10000 oiled penguins had already been collected by 28 June, mostly from Robben Island but including 600 from Dassen Island. Of these only 40 had died. It is possible that the number of oiled birds being held in captivity may soon rise to 20-25000, placing their care well beyond the capacity of expertise available in South Africa. International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) has already flown experts to South Africa to assist with the care and rehabilitation of oiled penguins, and aquaria from northern hemisphere countries are also to supply experts. Additionally, South Africa is to approach Australia, which is known to have successfully rehabilitated oiled penguins, for assistance with the care of oiled penguins. The Birdlife International Seabird Conservation Programme has been approached to ascertain which other countries have experts in the care and rehabilitation of oiled seabirds.

Many oiled penguins still remain at Robben Island in dense bush, making their capture difficult. Their condition is deteriorating and it is expected that unless they are caught soon most will die.

SANCCOB is organising the treatment and care of captive birds, and the transport of birds to Algoa Bay. The entire rescue operation is dependent on this organisation. Contrary to reports appearing in the press, SANCCOB had not received any financial support from the insurers of Treasure by the time banks closed on 28 June. Therefore, at present the SANCCOB operation is being funded entirely by donations received.

Cape Nature Conservation is co-ordinating the capture of penguins at Dassen Island. The Minister of Defence has been approached to provide sea and air support for evacuation of penguins from Dassen Island and the translocation of unoiled penguins to Algoa Bay, as well as personnel to assist at rehabilitation centres and elsewhere as deemed necessary.

The Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism has issued a special permit for the capture of 5 t sardine (pilchard) for feeding penguins that are at present being held in captivity.

Absorbent fibres have been placed at localities where penguins land at Robben Island and have been successful in cleaning these places to such an extent that some penguins are now coming ashore at Robben Island in an unoiled state. Attempts will similarly be made to clean landing stages at Dassen Island.

A few oiled cormorants have been collected, and chicks of Bank Cormorants were removed from Robben Island on 26 June for artificial rearing. Chicks of penguins were being collected at Robben Island for artificial rearing on 27 June 2000. Rescue centres for chicks are being established on the west coast by Mr and Mrs MacDonald and Mr and Mrs Campbell.

A satellite centre for oiled penguins has been set up at Salt River. An additional centre may be established in Saldanha. A holding centre for clean penguins, prior to their transportation to Algoa Bay, has been established at the aquarium facilities of Marine and Coastal Management in Sea Point.