10 September 2013

Tracking African penguins: phase two

SOUTH AFRICA - Conservation organisation BirdLife South Africa initiated the second phase of its African Penguin Satellite Tracking Project (APST Project) at Dassen Island, just of the west coast of Cape Town, over the weekend. The project team was joined by media representatives and partner GreenMatter.

There are fewer than 30,000 breeding pairs of African penguins worldwide. One hundred years ago, the Dassen Island colony was an estimated one million breeding pairs; today there are fewer than 4000 breeding pairs - a loss of almost 200 pairs a week. Some colonies are shrinking by 20 percent each year.

"The APST Project responds firstly to the plight of the African penguin as an endangered species that has exhibited a recent population collapse," said Dr Ross Wanless, Seabird Division Manager of BirdLife South Africa and the African Coordinator for the Global Seabird Programme.

"Secondly, the African Penguin is an indicator to marine ecosystem health and their decrease is a warning signal for the economy, quality of life, jobs and other social impacts."

For this round of research, the project team will look at where adult penguins go after breeding. Later, they will follow birds once they've completed their annual moult. By knowing where the birds go, the project team can determine if they are likely to compete for food with the sardine and anchovy fishery, and if implementing special management areas around islands (or elsewhere) will aid in supporting marine ecosystem health.
The marine environment is under enormous pressure and the African penguin's collapse is largely the result of human activities. BirdLife South Africa has prioritised the APST research in response to these issues.

The APST project involves attaching small GPS devices to breeding penguins to investigate their foraging ranges (where they look for food) and the constraints faced by penguins during breeding. The devices are similar to a car's GPS navigation system, but transmit the penguins' positions to a network of satellites, which then transmit the positional information back to earth. These data are accessed daily, allowing the project team to track the birds' movements in real time.

Each small device costs R30,000. Birdlife International's African Penguin Species Champion, the Charl van der Merwe Trust, provided funds for 20 devices and covered the costs for satellite uplinks.

In preparation for the upcoming Save our Seabirds (SOS) Festival, which will run from 7 to 13 October, BirdLife South Africa has developed the African Penguin Tracker website to provide the public with access to the real-time movements of the penguins.

Also for the SOS Festival, BirdLife South Africa and GreenMatter will be developing a game linked to the APST Project for high school and university students.

"The game will provide experiential learning about a serious issue in a fun and interactive format, instilling environmental values in the next generation of leaders," said Wanless.

African Penguin Satellite Tracking Project launched [press release], 8 September 2013, BirdLife South Africa

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