The African penguin is known for its loud braying. It’s time for us to get braying and even more loudly. Academics and NGOs such as BirdLife South Africa and the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB) are asking us to join them in raising a storm of protest that will force the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment (DFFE) to not let our iconic South African penguin go extinct. They say the time to act is now or it will be too late. They are asking us to show the Minister for the DFFE that we are watching and want action.

The  African penguin only exists in Namibia and South Africa and most of them live in South Africa. A century ago there were more than a million breeding pairs of penguins but as of 2022 there are only 10 000 breeding pairs. The penguin was given the status of ‘endangered’ by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature in 2010, but numbers have continued to decline and conservationists believe that they could be extinct as soon as 2035.

This slide to extinction is not inevitable. In the 17-year period between 1987 and 2004, the number of African penguins greatly increased at west coast sites, which gives hope that we can reverse the trend again.  

What have the government and conservationists been doing to help the penguins?

A lot is being done. There has been extensive tracking of penguins to understand how far they swim, for how long and how deep, where they go to forage, etc. Weigh bridges and tagging systems are being used to monitor penguins’ arrivals and departures from colonies and check their weight. Nests have been provided to protect them from sun and storms and protect their eggs from being eaten by, for example, Cape gulls. SANCCOB has been collecting and incubating eggs that get deserted and releasing hatched chicks back into the wild. They have also been taking in severely underweight birds and feeding them before re-releasing them.  A lengthy  island closure experiment was carried out which concluded that closure of areas around key penguin breeding colonies to commercial fishing of anchovy and sardine could reduce resource competition between commercial fisheries and African penguins and thereby improve African penguins’ access to their preferred food. 

Why are the penguin numbers still declining?

There are many threats facing penguins but experts agree that the key factor and the most urgent issue is lack of access to adequate food. SANCCOB is finding increasing numbers of undernourished, emaciated birds. After the island closure experiment found that stopping commercial fishing around islands where there are penguin colonies would help to arrest the decline in numbers, the Minister of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment asked the fisheries and conservation organisations to come to some agreement on fishing closures that would be a fair trade off between the commercial companies wanting to harvest enough fish and the penguins being able to access sufficient food. Unfortunately, the parties concerned could not reach agreement. The  Minister then called on an international panel of experts to decide whether island closures should be implemented and how to determine appropriate closures to suit all parties. The panel completed its work in 2023.  The Minister did follow the panel’s recommendations to impose closures. However,  BirdLife South Africa and SANCCOB say that the existing closures are not going to benefit the penguins because they are not sized and shaped to include the penguins’ preferred places where they go to hunt food. BirdLife South Africa and SANCCOB have therefore taken the decision to take the Minister to court, represented by the Biodiversity Law Centre. 

However, this is not the only threat to the penguins. South Africa is allowing ship-to-ship bunkering of fuel in Algoa Bay. This is when, instead of a ship going into port to refuel, the ship stays out at sea and receives fuel from another ship which acts as a floating filling station. This can save the ship a lot of time as sometimes ships have to wait for a berth to come open and it can also save them harbour costs and taxes. Ship-to-ship bunkering increases the risks of oil spills. Bunkering takes place near St Croix Island in Algoa Bay which used to be the world’s largest penguin colony but the numbers of penguins has decreased by 90% in ten years, a strikingly high decrease in numbers. There have been four oil spills in Algoa Bay since 2016. Algoa Bay has also become a very noisy place with a large increase in ship traffic. Research into penguins is suggesting that they hunt in groups more than was previously appreciated and that they use sound to communicate with each other or even to listen for prey. Increased shipping traffic could be interrupting penguin communication. 

Why it matters if we let the penguins go extinct

You may be thinking that we are being indulgent ruffling our feathers about a seabird when so many people in South Africa are struggling to find employment or find the cash to buy their next meal. In fact, there is a clear line of connection between the two. The penguins are important for tourism. The Boulders Beach colony beyond Simon’s Town alone attracts 60,000 visitors a year.  You can’t walk near the colony without falling over penguin merchandise in the form of fluffy penguins, ceramic penguins, penguin keyrings and penguin images on mugs and tea towels. The visitors who come to see the penguins buy this merchandise, book accommodation, hire cars or taxis and visit shops, bars and restaurants, all of which supports coastal jobs.

The plight of the penguins is also raising a red flag for our fishing industry and ocean health.   Research has shown ‘very low adult [penguin] survival in most years of particularly low sardine stock biomass’. The government, scientists and stakeholders agree on fishing quotas  to prevent overharvesting of fish to prevent collapse of fish stocks. But the international review into the declines in the penguin population raised the question as to whether the current harvesting rules in South Africa are adequately precautionary in relation to sardines. Small fish like sardine and anchovy are a step in the food chain. Sardines are the main prey of a variety of fish such as yellowtail, hake and tuna, so when sardine numbers are low, fisheries for bigger fish get affected, not just the sardine fishery. In Namibia, failure to prevent overfishing led to a collapse in fisheries with huge job losses and all the seabirds declined in number. Even after more than five years of fisheries being completely closed, anchovy and sardine have not recovered.

Our leaders often argue for the need to develop our natural resources ‘to improve people’s lives’. The sad tale of the collapse of Namibia’s fisheries and the story of our endangered penguins warns that human exploitation of oceanic natural resources, if not managed properly, can overwhelm the regenerative capacity of our oceans, which does not improve people’s lives, it diminishes them. The long-term impacts are catastrophic.  We call on the government to manage competing interests and uphold Section 24(b) of the Constitution which says that  “everyone has the right to have the environment protected, for the benefit of present and future generations, through reasonable legislative and other measures that prevent pollution and ecological degradation [and] promote conservation”. 

What we can do

  • Ask one person every day if they know that the African penguin is going extinct and get them thinking about the implications.
  • Visit SANCCOB’s penguin page https://sanccob.co.za/taking-action-for-african-penguins/
  • Eat ‘sustainably’ by downloading and using the SASSI app. 
  • Donate your expertise, time or money  to NGOs working on this issue – BirdLife South Africa, SANCCOB, WWF, etc
  • Support the campaign started by Judy Mann at the Cape Town Aquarium called #NOOW Not On Our Watch. Visit the website www.africanpenguinnotonourwatch.org
  • Email Minister Barbara Creecy today. Go to: https://www.africanpenguinnotonourwatch.org/email-the-minister
  • Share posts on social media using the hashtags #NOOW,  #extinctionrebellionsa, #africanpenguin, #conservation, #litigation, #biodiversity.
  • Ask your parliamentarian to put forward a parliamentary question as to why we are failing to protect the penguins from the threat of extinction, or a more specific question about the island closures or catch limits on sardine stocks or ship bunkering or offshore oil and gas.
  • Those who live near a penguin colony can support  the colony management by helping reinforce the rules to protect the penguins – speed limits on the roads, keeping dogs on leads, not walking into off-limit areas, not approaching too close. 
  • Where you feel signage explaining the rules to protect the penguins  is inadequate, request the authorities to increase or improve signage. You can find contact details at: https://www.africanpenguinnotonourwatch.org/colony-managers
  • Become a supporter of  XR Cape Town by signing up on our website: www.extinctionrebellion.org.za and join us in telling the truth about the crises of climate and nature that are the challenge of our times.

Read the full press release here

Use these visual resources to support the campaign


Biodiversity Law Centre. 2024.03.20. Breaking: Landmark litigation launched to protect the African Penguin from extinction.https://biodiversitylaw.org/breaking-landmark-litigation-launched-to-protect-the-african-penguin-from-extinction/