Dyer Island in dire straits

Posted on the 14th December 2021

(This article first appeared in the BirdLife South Africa e-Newsletter: December 2021 – Ed.)

Avian influenza in the Western Cape in 2021 has had a devastating effect on the seabird populations on Dyer Island, off Gansbaai. The impact on the island’s Endangered African Penguins has been particularly severe.

There is no cure for avian influenza and the best course of action is to lower the viral load in the environment by removing sick birds and carcasses. The staff of CapeNature, the management authority for Dyer Island, are working around the clock to ensure that dead birds are taken away as swiftly as possible, and slowly but surely we are seeing the tide turn: the number of carcasses removed has dropped from more than 500 per day to about 65. We thank every CapeNature staff member who has been part of this effort.

The staff have also been removing compromised young African Penguins from the island and taking them to the African Penguin and Seabird Sanctuary (APSS), a project of the Dyer Island Conservation Trust in Gansbaai, where every effort is being made to rehabilitate them. And this is where you can help. The extra quarantine requirements and additional precautions have resulted in an increase in the costs of rehabilitation. Just to feed the young birds for the next six weeks, we estimate we will need R100 800.
In the past the APSS relied on donations from tourists and other visitors, but now we’ve been hit by two pandemics: one bringing the world to a standstill and the other decimating our seabird populations.

So why remove African Penguin chicks from Dyer Island? It’s not because the adults are bad parents – in fact they do an excellent job to feed and raise their young despite challenging circumstances . October–November is the end of the breeding season and chicks are supposed to be fat and healthy and ready to start fending for themselves. But the parents face a dilemma: they not only have to feed their young, but also have to undergo a full change of feathers. This means they must build up enough fat reserves (about three times their normal body weight) to stay on land for the entire moult because they are not waterproof and cannot hunt.

For various reasons, some parents start their moult before their offspring are ready to fledge. The chicks of these birds will either starve to death on the island or venture into the ocean without the fat reserves they need to survive the challenges of the wild. In a perfect world this could be considered a natural process of selection, but in our less-than-perfect world humans have taken millions of penguin eggs for consumption as a delicacy; scraped tons of guano off islands where penguins bred, forcing them to nest in the open instead of in insulated and protective burrows; and spilled toxic oil into the penguins’ habitat.

So in this world we need to take action to prevent the possible extinction of one of South Africa’s most iconic animals – an extinction, if it happens, predicted for 2026. At the moment #EveryPenguinCounts. Removing and raising by hand underweight chicks and the chicks of moulting parents is just one part of the bigger African Penguin Biodiversity Management Plan.
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