Defend Truth


As African Penguins teeter on the brink of extinction, Boulders could be a vital education tool


Dr Andrew Jenkins is co-director of AVISENSE Africa – a small company that does bird impact assessments for industrial-scale developments across Africa. He has a PhD in ornithology, and academic track records in raptor biology and avian collision ecology. He is a research associate of the Percy FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology, University of Cape Town.

There is much more that SANParks could do to promote African Penguin conservation at Simon’s Town’s world-famous Boulders breeding colony.

The African Penguin is teetering on the brink of extinction. Numbers of this southern African endemic have plummeted from more than a million birds 100 years ago, to fewer than 20,000 today, with the downward trend ongoing and deeply concerning.

The ecology of this dire situation, and the political and economic issues obstructing efforts to save this charismatic species, have been addressed in several previous submissions to Daily Maverick. To summarise the best science on the subject: there is a deepening shortage of small fish for the penguins to eat, caused by the over-exploitation of this food supply by the commercial fishing industry. This dynamic is playing out at all the known breeding colonies, and the Boulders colony near Simon’s Town on the Cape Peninsula is no exception.

One of only two significant mainland colonies – the other is at Stony Point near Betty’s Bay – Boulders was first colonised by just a few birds in the early 1980s. Over the next two decades, the colony grew to nearly 4,000 birds, but has since shrunk to fewer than 2,500.

People love penguins. They’re cute and comical and trigger warm waves of empathy and love. But because most penguins live in the Antarctic or on remote islands in the Southern Ocean, live exposure to wild penguins is a rare privilege. It’s also one of life’s more profoundly feel-good experiences.

Two places in the world are close enough to large cities and support enough penguins to operate as significant ecotourism venues. Phillip Island off the coast of South Australia supports around 40,000 Little Penguins and attracts hundreds of thousands of tourists annually, and Boulders routinely attracts more than 500,000 visitors every year.

But while Australia’s “Penguin Parade” offers views of the birds coming ashore at night, Boulders offers close views of the birds in the bright light of day, as they go about all aspects of their lives – feeding chicks, courting, fighting and heading out to sea and back to forage.

Joy of penguins

Clearly, the Boulders colony is the best and easiest place in the world to experience the joy of penguins.

For the last 25 years the main part of the Boulders colony has been managed by South African National Parks (SANParks) as part of the Table Mountain National Park. Since they took over, SANParks has controlled the human-penguin interface by establishing boardwalks, viewing sites and no-go areas where the birds are left largely undisturbed.

By 2009/10, a rigorous assessment of the commercial value of the colony revealed that over a 12-month period it generated R14.5-million in tourist revenue. In 2017, nearly a million people visited Boulders, about 250 jobs were directly associated with the colony, and a review commissioned by the City of Cape Town predicted that the venue would generate billions of rands in income over the following 30 years (although SANParks itself predicts that without significant intervention the species will be extinct by 2050).

But while the substantial commercial benefits of the colony for its managing agency are clear, the benefits for penguins are anything but. A recent study of sustainability of penguin tourism globally stresses the need for money raised to be used to “benefit the penguins, their ocean and coastal habitats, research, and the local community”.

But while penguin tourism hubs in Australia and Argentina focus on both stimulating awareness about their birds’ struggles to survive and accumulating funds to help the penguins overcome these struggles, there is little to suggest that SANParks gives back to penguins in the same way.

Certainly, SANParks makes no demonstrative use of the Boulders venue to push the African Penguin conservation agenda. Barring an inconspicuous graph of declining numbers and one or two passing references to the birds’ threatened status, the present signage does nothing to urgently alert tourists to present rates of decline.

Looming tragedy

The African Penguin may be ecologically extinct by the time kids enjoying the birds at Boulders today reach middle age, but most visitors will exit the venue completely oblivious to this looming tragedy.

Given such a sad lack of effort by the managing agency (and a perennial lack of clarity on what proportion of SANParks’ income from Boulders is fed back into the effective management of this lucrative site), the cynic in me can’t help noting that visitors departing the colony must do so through a crassly commercial curio shop, stocking everything penguin at prices set firmly for spenders of foreign currency.

Further compounding these deficiencies, recent research (for example on Magellanic Penguins) has shown that penguin tourism can have a significant negative effect on penguins. So, while Boulders is a lucrative asset for SANParks, Simon’s Town and the City of Cape Town, not only does it not appear to be working for penguin conservation, it could even be detrimental to the birds’ long-term survival.

Even a cursory look through SANParks’ recent annual reports shows the impressive scope and depth of its contribution to regional sustainability, fully in keeping with its founding credo, Custos naturae – Guardians of nature. This makes its failure to do right by the Boulders’ penguins, even as the African Penguin teeters on the brink of oblivion, even more problematic and disappointing.

How can it improve? Well, it’s imperative that visitors to Boulders leave fully informed about the dismal penguin prognosis. There is a wealth of recent and punchy science on this, and disseminating the technical into easily digestible, visually striking, conspicuous and preferably multilingual signage is an absolute necessity.

Then how about something more interactive – perhaps a prominently sited, looped video presentation that lays out the facts in a way that engages a younger or more visually stimulated audience?

And surely, something must be set up to allow visitors to donate directly to the cause, leaving Boulders in the knowledge that they have done something to help save our wonderful and irreplaceable penguins?  

There is so much that could and should be done to better exploit Boulders’ potential to help save the African Penguin. But it remains undone.

Come on SANParks – get with the penguin programme, before it’s too late.  DM

Dr Andrew Jenkins is co-director of AVISENSE Africa – a small company that does bird impact assessments for industrial-scale developments across Africa. He has a PhD in ornithology and academic track records in raptor biology and avian collision ecology. He is a research associate of the Percy FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology, University of Cape Town.


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  • Chris Taylor says:

    Two changes I would like to see; 1) control the gulls at Boulders and 2) develop a synthetic guano material to allow the penguins to nest effectively on the islands.
    As a tour guide I commonly visit Boulders, and in the breeding season I see gulls predating on eggs and small chicks. Both are precious to the survival of the colony, yet no measures are in place to protect the new generation. “Nature must take its course, we can’t intervene with the gulls”. Of course we can! The whole concept of San parks is one big intervention. Is a gull as valuable as a penguin chick? Absolutely not.
    Then offshore, surely materials experts can devise a material with guano-like characteristics? Apply it like concrete plaster gunite, by hose. It must be soft enough for penguins to burrow into yet hard enough to withstand rain and spray action. The penguins will be able to nest undisturbed closer to fish resources.
    Chris Taylor

  • Chris Lee says:

    And absolutely nothing is done by local authorities by way of traffic calming in the area either. I witness first hand, and regularly, the birds flattened on the roads in the vicinity by speeding vehicles – this could easily be mitigated by traffic calming measures between the Simon’s Town old cemetery and the golf course. Parks board tried and failed, as have a number of local residents, myself included.

  • Michael Barry says:

    A utopian dream. Fish in your own exclusive economic zone, stay out of anybody else’s and do not fish in the high seas. That way coastal states are responsible for and can control their own ecology and maritime economy. Why should powerful northern nations fish in Antarctica? It’s hardly a traditional practice.

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