Following habitat destruction from heavy rains, the SeaWorld Conservation Fund made an emergency grant to the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB) to help save endangered African penguin chicks in South Africa. SANCCOB used the grant to rescue and care for 209 abandoned and displaced chicks from colonies in the Western Cape and Eastern Cape of South Africa following extreme weather and devasting floods that destroyed habitats and nests. The chicks are being hand-reared until they can be safely released back to their native habitats. Thus far, 80 now healthy animals have already been returned to the wild since the end of June with more to follow.
The Seaworld Conservation Fund provides grants around the world to grassroots conservation projects that make a difference in species research, habitat protection, conservation education, and animal rescue and rehabilitation. The African penguin has suffered a massive population decline and the species was listed as Endangered on the IUCN Red Data List in 2010. This is the first emergency grant made by the Fund in 2023.“The Fund has supported SANCCOB since 2009 with almost $300,000 in financial and scientific support and we were fortunate to be able to step in and help again during this unexpected and devastating environmental crisis,” said Dr. Christopher Dold, President of the SeaWorld Conservation Fund and SeaWorld Chief Zoological Officer. “The work they do is vital for the region and is making a meaningful difference in helping prevent a possible extinction event for this very special charismatic species. This is the outcome we all hope for in providing financial assistance to organizations in need – returning healthy animals back to the wild to thrive and rebuild abundant populations of seabirds.”
SANCCOB is recognized internationally as a leader in seabird rehabilitation and oiled wildlife response, admitting approximately 2,000 to 3,000 seabirds each year to two rehabilitation centers in South Africa. SANCCOB’s African Penguin Chick Bolstering Project forms part of the South African conservation strategy for the species with the goal of preventing further population decline by preventing mortality of chicks in the wild and bolstering the wild population with hand-reared chicks from eggs and chicks that were unlikely to survive without intervention. In the last 17 years (2006 – 2022), SANCCOB has hand-reared close to 10,000 African penguin chicks.
Extreme South African Weather Damages Wild Habitats, Puts Hundreds of Chicks at Risk
At-risk African penguin chicks began to arrive at SANCCOB rehabilitation centers in the last weeks of May when extreme weather devastated penguin colonies in the Western Cape and Eastern Cape of South Africa. Heavy rainfall caused flooding and destruction of African penguin nests, resulting in chick abandonment and displacement from nests and parents.
Nicky Stander, SANCCOB Head of Conservation, said when her team arrived on the scene, they found hundreds of abandoned chicks wet, shivering, and dehydrated.
“We knew we had a very challenging situation on our hands, and we immediately started providing emergency care to raise the body temperature of the chicks and improve their hydration before transporting the orphans to the rehabilitation center. Without support from groups like SeaWorld stepping in to support us, we would not be able to provide a second chance to so many rescued chicks that otherwise would not survive,” said Stander.
Of the 209 African penguin chicks rescued, 170 were relocated to SANCCOB Cape Town and 39 to SANCCOB Gqeberha. Chicks will be hand-reared until a safe release date can be determined. In addition, 28 African penguin eggs were recovered and transported to the facility in Cape Town and placed in egg incubators in the Chick Rearing Unit. The $15,000 emergency grant from the SeaWorld Conservation Fund is assisting SANCCOB in purchasing necessities to support the overall project including the purchase of penguin nutrition, medical supplies, repair, and replacement of equipment, as well as costs to assist with staffing needs of the project.
The African penguin chicks admitted varied in age from less than a week old to a range of older penguin chicks from Robben Island that were close to fledging age and required just a few weeks of care at SANCCOB. Within one month of admission, SANCCOB was able to start planning the return of hand-reared birds to the wild, and the organization’s conservation efforts to meet this ultimate objective are made possible by generous donor funding such as the animal crisis grant awarded by the SeaWorld Conservation Fund. At present, 80 of the young, rescued birds have already been released, and in the weeks ahead, the release-readiness of the remaining birds will be assessed on a weekly basis by SANCCOB’s veterinary and rehabilitation teams. Among the releases, 30 juveniles were released at De Hoop Nature Reserve, which is three hours from Cape Town and is the chosen location to re-establish an African penguin colony in a collaborative project with BirdLife South Africa and CapeNature. All birds released from SANCCOB and other rehabilitation centers in South Africa are equipped with Passive Integrated Transponders (microchips) for post-release monitoring, which allows researchers to determine how well they cope in the wild after being hand-reared or rehabilitated. For the recent De Hoop release, four African penguins were fitted with GPS trackers to monitor their movements immediately after release. To detect these birds (and birds transpondered in the wild colonies), ground readers are installed at all main colonies, including a recent installation at the De Hoop site.
Since its inception in 2003, the SeaWorld Conservation Fund has provided more than $20 million in grants to provide financial and scientific support to 1,391 different animal conservation and ecosystem projects on all seven continents.
Established in 1968, SANCCOB is a non-profit, marine-orientated organization with two seabird centers in South Africa. Its primary objective is to reverse the decline of seabird populations through the rescue, rehabilitation, and release of ill, injured, abandoned, and oiled seabirds, especially endangered species like the African penguin. In a non-spill year, SANCCOB treats more than 2,000 seabirds, of which approximately 50% are African penguins and the organization is on-call 24/7, 365 days a year. SANCCOB has a small staff complement of bird and veterinary staff who operate according to strict, internationally approved Standard Operating Procedures. The team is supported by colony managers (SANParks, Robben Island Museum, City of Cape Town, and CapeNature), 10 Penguin Rangers monitoring six key breeding colonies, and approximately 170 volunteers and interns throughout the year, dependent on the occurrence and frequency of emergency response incidents. On average, SANCCOB admits 35 different seabird species annually and has treated more than 100,000 endangered African penguins and other seabirds. SANCCOB’s rehabilitation centers are registered with the South African Veterinary Council and recognized internationally as a leader in seabird rehabilitation. Since its establishment, SANCCOB has responded to every major oil spill off the South African coast.
About the SeaWorld Conservation Fund
Established in 2003, the SeaWorld Conservation Fund is a 501(c)(3) non-profit private foundation that supports grassroots conservation projects that make a difference in species research, habitat protection, conservation education, and animal rescue and rehabilitation. It has provided more than $20 million in grants to provide financial and scientific support to 1,391 different marine and land-based animal conservation and ecosystem projects on all seven continents. More than 100 different species have been helped through these grants. Funding comes through a variety of sources including contributions by SeaWorld’s corporate entity, SeaWorld Entertainment, and from the parks via roundups at the register, merchandise sales, and special events. Corporate partners contribute to the Fund, and consumers can support the cause by making donations in the parks or online. SeaWorld Entertainment, Inc. covers all expenses and overhead for the Fund. This enables it to return 100 percent of every penny donated directly to the projects supported. Grant applications are accepted annually, though 2022-2023 grant applications are by invitation only. Both one-time and multi-year support is provided for recipient organisations.