African penguin numbers are in rapid decline. Bristol Zoo Gardens and the Bristol Conservation and Science Foundation have recently initiated a conservation and research programme for African penguins called ‚ÄòProject Penguin‚Äô, and it aims to stop the dramatic decline of the species by establishing new breeding colonies for the penguins closer to fish stocks in South Africa.
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Conservation experts have raised the alarm over the recent ‚Äúcatastrophic‚Äù decline in numbers of African penguins in the wild. Dr Christoph Schwitzer, head of research at the Bristol Conservation and Science Foundation ‚Äì a sister organisation to Bristol Zoo Gardens ‚Äì recently returned from a trip to South Africa where he is leading a conservation project to help save the species. Whilst there, Dr Schwitzer noticed a dramatic decline in penguin numbers on Robben Island since his last visit just two years ago. He estimates the colony has reduced by around 75 per cent. Dr Schwitzer said: ‚ÄúWhen I last visited Robben Island there was a large penguin colony on the beaches and on nests, we were surrounded by them. But the difference this time was shocking. This is peak breeding season, so it is a great concern. Unfortunately, most of the other 27 African penguin colonies are doing equally badly.‚Äù He explains: ‚ÄúFigures show that the penguin colony on Robben Island declined by 62 per cent from 2007 to 2008 alone, leaving a mere 2,200 breeding pairs on the island, down from an all time high of around 8,000 pairs in 2004. ‚ÄúData for 2009 are not yet available, but if this trend has continued then it is likely there are less than a quarter of the penguins that I saw in 2007 left. It is a truly catastrophic and desperate situation.‚Äù African penguin numbers are in rapid decline, this year reaching their lowest recorded level of just 27,000 breeding pairs compared with two million pairs at the turn of the 20th century. The birds are now listed as ‚Äòvulnerable‚Äô on the IUCN red list of threatened species, but will soon be upgraded to ‚Äòendangered‚Äô. Bristol Zoo Gardens and the Bristol Conservation and Science Foundation have recently initiated a conservation and research programme for African penguins in collaboration with the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB), the University of Cape Town‚Äôs Animal Demography Unit, the South African government, Cape Nature and other local and international partners. Called ‚ÄòProject Penguin‚Äô, it aims to stop the dramatic decline of the species by establishing new breeding colonies for the penguins closer to fish stocks in South Africa. Wildlife television presenter and campaigner, Michaela Strachan, has given Bristol Zoo‚Äôs penguin project her full support. Now living in South Africa‚Äôs Cape Town, Michaela has witnessed the decline in penguin numbers first hand. Penguin expert, Professor Peter Barham of the University of Bristol, is the principal investigator on the Earthwatch ‚ÄúSouth African Penguins‚Äù project and the Leverhulme Trust funded project ‚ÄúAutomated recognition of penguins‚Äù. He said: ‚ÄúI have noticed the steep decline in numbers with much concern and even some alarm,‚Äù he said. ‚ÄúNow we need to understand the causes; food supply, global warming or pollution.‚Äù Professor Barham outlined other issues affecting penguins, including increased predation by fur seals, the continuing risk of oil spills and, as the climate warms up, the lack of suitable, cool, places to breed within the traditional colonies. He added: "If we find that the problems arise from movement of fish, rather then reduction in the number of fish, we need to learn how we can persuade penguins to form new colonies closer to the fish stocks. This is one of the most important objectives of Bristol Zoo‚Äôs Project Penguin. "I believe that with continued research there is a good chance that we can understand well enough what the problems are before they become insurmountable, and that we will be able to take appropriate actions to prevent the species becoming extinct.‚Äù Now Bristol Zoo is appealing for donations to help fund the project for the coming years, and help to save this endangered species. Donations would help safeguard the future of the project, and in future it is hoped that penguin eggs from captive birds could be flown to South Africa and released into the wild, although this could be expensive. Neil Maddison, head of conservation programmes at the Bristol Conservation and Science Foundation, said: "Our project is a huge effort to conserve an already vulnerable species, but the situation is now much more dire than we thought. Unless drastic action is taken there is substantial risk that this species could become extinct in the wild.‚Äù For more information about Bristol Zoo Gardens‚Äô Project Penguin, visit the Zoo‚Äôs website www.bristolzoo.org.uk/about/conservation/projects.
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