Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Great Penguin Rescue

I just finished a book titled, The Great Penguin Rescue.   

Its author, Dyan DeNapoli, is a penguin biologist who was recruited to help manage the rescue and rehabilitation of thousands of African Penguins injured in an oil spill off the coast of South Africa. However, this particular oil spill was unusual because it affected around 40,000 birds!  This event became the largest wildlife rescue effort of any species in the world.
Photo reproduced by kind permission of SANCOBB  
Penguins are extremely hardy, but often very specialized animals.  Human interference can throw off their delicate balance with the environment, and the results can be devastating for avian populations. 

African Penguins are built for swimming in the frigid waters off Southern Africa.  Their thick layers of feathers prevent the near freezing waters from making contact with their skin and causing hypothermia.  However, when oil makes contact with these feathers, they clump together and lose their ability to protect the penguin.  A penguin with oil on its feathers cannot enter the water to hunt, and will eventually starve to death or succumb to hypothermia.
On June 23, 2000, the seventeen-year old iron ore carrier, MV Treasure, sustained damage to its hull in the rough seas around South Africa and sank.  Its crewmembers were airlifted to safety via helicopter, and salvage crews removed around 200 tons of oil and fuel from the vessel.  Unfortunately, some oil still escaped the boat and entered the surrounding environment.  The oil slicks drifted towards Robben Island and Dassen Island, two major breeding grounds for African Penguins.  Forty-one percent of the world’s population of African Penguins, an already very threatened population, stood to lose their lives from this spill.
The Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB) had been established in 1968 to help respond to environmental disasters affecting avian wildlife around Cape Town, South Africa.  But the Treasure disaster affected far more birds than this, or any other wildlife rescue organization, had ever dealt with.  The logistics of managing so many thousands of penguins would prove as challenging as the work itself. 

In order to deal with the crisis, SANCCOB had to commission a larger facility to hold the penguins.  The Salt River Penguin Crisis Centre was quickly built out of an enormous warehouse formerly used to service trains.  Penguin experts from around the world arrived to help train volunteers and manage operations.  Around 12,500 volunteers helped, over the course of more than two months, to rehabilitate the penguins. 

Each penguin needed to be given a charcoal solution to counteract any oil it may have swallowed, force-fed fish every day, given time to swim each day and be completely cleaned of oil.  Eventually, around 90% of the penguins rescued in the disaster were released. 

DeNapoli, Dyan. The Great Penguin Rescue. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010.

Submitted by Leah Sainz, World Bird Sanctuary Naturalist

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