There are few wild creatures in the world that allow us to get so close to them. Bizarrely the African penguin colony on the Cape Peninsula in South Africa barely notices us as we approach them to within metres. There is something so special about these flightless birds that conjure up so much delight. For me it’s the way they waddle, so humanlike, resembling an old man, in a dinner jacket, with a stiff hip. It is the way they hold their fore flippers limply at their sides like ‘Kevin the teenager’ in a strop. And so I’m stuck in finding any other adjective to describe them but ‘cute’.
But they’re so tiny as well which just adds to their cuteness. The African penguin is less than a metre tall and weighs no more than 4kg. They are the classic black and white but with a pink stripe above their eyes which is pretty awesome as it changes colour depending on the penguin’s body temperature. But the most bizarre thing of all is that they sound exactly like a donkey which has given them the nickname ‘Jack-ass’ penguin and more than once made me turn around in fright expecting to see a donkey.
Sadly though, despite being a friggin’ awesome bird it is another animal on the endangered list. The reason for this is once again solely due to us humans. According to wikipedia, roughly 4 million penguins existed at the beginning of the 19th century. Of the 1.5-million population of African penguins estimated in 1910, only some 10% remained at the end of the 20th century. African penguin populations, which breed in Namibia and South Africa, have declined by 95 percent since pre-industrial times and the total population fell to 200,000 in 2000. In 2010, the number was estimated to be only at 55,000. At this rate of decline, the African penguin is expected to be extinct in the wild by 2026.
I find that absolutely crazy to believe, such an iconic bird disappearing in a few short years. The reasons for the massive decline in population was mainly from habitat destruction where people ransacked the colonies digging up the valuable and solidified penguin poo, guano, to use as fertiliser and stole millions of eggs for consumption as delicacies. Penguin eggs were still being served in the South African parliament as late as the 1970s! Both of those practices are illegal now but the damage is already done.
What can we do to help? For the African penguin support charities such as https://sanccob.co.za/ who are doing amazing conservation work. But with the general destruction of our biosphere the African penguin is certainly not alone in this demise. We need to think more holistically about all of our actions and our diet and question whether it is sustainable. We have to take a personal responsibility to the destruction of our biosphere and be outspoken when things aren’t right - we all have a voice and we all count.