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Building homes for not-so-happy feet to save African penguins

AFRICAN jackass penguins - so called because of their bray - are definitely not happy feet. In fact, the cute, curious creatures are dying out. Clare Nullis reports.

Nesting in the sparkling sand, preening on the rocks and darting through the waters, the penguins on the southern tip of Africa are the ultimate crowd-pleasers. But crisis looms.

Short of food, exposed to predators and the African sun, their numbers are plummeting. But salvation may rest in a simple manmade solution - housing for penguins.

Dotting the shore of a penguin colony near the Cape of Good Hope are 200 nesting boxes, each big enough to house a happy family of parents, eggs and chicks. The experiment has already worked well on a more distant penguin island in South African waters, and wildlife rangers are eagerly watching to see whether the boxes recently installed on Boulders Beach, where tourists can watch the birds up close, will prove equally attractive.

"You look at the penguins and think they have a lovely time in sunny South Africa, but it's a struggle," says Monique Ruthenberg, a ranger with the Table Mountain National Park in Cape Town, where summer temperatures recently hit 40 degrees Celsius.

Park authorities installed the boxes - made of a fiberglass mix, shaped like a burrow and dug into the sand to mimic the real nests - at Boulders Beach as part of desperate efforts to protect the dwindling populations of African penguins.

It has been a losing battle. Numbers of the cute, curious creatures have plummeted from around 3 million in the 1930s to just 120,000 because of overfishing and pollution.

Some experts fear the species will die out in as little as a decade, and are particularly alarmed at the prospect of global warming increasing the number of scorching days, raising water temperatures and altering fish migration patterns.

The Boulders Beach colony has fallen 30 percent from a peak of 3,900 birds in 2005 to 2,600 and some of the island colonies have suffered calamitous declines of 50 percent.

The African penguin, also called the jackass because of its bray, is the only one to inhabit the African continent. It has shorter feathers than the Antarctic birds because it doesn't face such cold and is just 50 centimeters tall.

Swimming with penguins

The Boulders Colony began in 1985 when a couple of penguins moved from a nearby island onto the beach in the naval base of Simon's Town, decided they liked it and stayed. So many followed that authorities had to build fences to prevent them invading people's gardens. But the tourists poured in.

About 600,000 a year now visit Boulders Beach, which boasts that it is the only place in the world where people can swim with penguins. The real-life "Happy Feet" are unfazed by all the attention and, apart from a few who were killed while snoozing under visitors' cars, don't seem to have suffered from their contact with humans.

There is a constant risk from pollution. The last big oil spill was in 2000, when 20,000 penguins were trucked 756 kilometers from Cape Town to Port Elizabeth to allow workers time to clean up oil from a wrecked tanker while the birds swam home.

But even in years with no big accidents, the South African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds has to rescue and rehabilitate hundreds of birds whose feathers are covered in oil illegally dumped at sea and washed ashore.

The population fall continues, especially on the more remote Dyer Island where numbers have plummeted from 23,000 breeding pairs in the early 1970s to just 1,500 pairs. Penguins normally mate for life.

"It's horrible," Wilfred Chivell, chairman of the Dyer Island Conservation Trust, who blames bad fishing management for a dwindling supply of sardines and pilchards, the penguins' main food.

Such is the competition for fish that Ruthenberg says young seals attack penguins to rip the fish from their bellies.

Gulls prey on the eggs and young chicks, often working as a team; the nesting penguins leave their eggs to chase away the invaders, while another gull sneaks in behind, she says.

Eggs lie abandoned in the sand because the parents have taken to the water to escape the heat. Once a nesting pair abandons its eggs, other penguins often follow suit.

So volunteers calling themselves the iKapa Honorary Rangers asked the public to sponsor nesting boxes for US$20 each. They initially planned 100 boxes but this was doubled thanks to a US$2,000 donation from the Species Survival Plan - a cooperation program linking members of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums in the United States.

The nesting boxes are meant to give the penguins an edge - shelter from the heat and a better defense against egg-stealing gulls - and the 1,000 boxes on the more remote Dyer Island have proven popular, with 80 percent occupancy.

Now Ruthenberg hopes the Boulders Beach penguins that have lost eggs and chicks will learn the lesson and take to the newly installed boxes in time to lay a second batch before the laying season ends in April.


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