Bird-brained scheme promotes faking it to save Happy Feet
Life-sized concrete penguins are being used to save the African penguin from extinction
You have to be wide awake to avoid getting conned in the era of fake news.
But perhaps some degree of trickery can be forgiven when it is all for a good cause – in this case, saving Africa’s endangered penguins from extinction.
This is why BirdLife South Africa and CapeNature hope to entice and deceive hundreds of penguins into establishing a new breeding colony, with the help of fake, life-size penguins made from concrete.
Considering that African penguins are found only along the coast of SA and Namibia and that the total global population has plummeted by 99% over the past century, seabird researchers believe that desperate measures are needed.
The concrete decoy penguins will be installed over the next few weeks in the De Hoop Nature Reserve, about 230km southeast of Cape Town.
Working on the theory that penguins are a very sociable sort, the researchers are hoping that the decoys (combined with the regular broadcasting of penguin recordings) will fox hundreds of birds into believing that this really is the new place to be.
To add to the deception, the ranks of the decoys may be supplemented by some injured or abandoned penguins currently under rehabilitation.
The plan was announced in Durban at the recent meeting of the African-Eurasian Migratory Waterbird Agreement (AEWA), a United Nations intergovernmental treaty dedicated to the conservation of 254 migratory waterbird species.
BirdLife South Africa coastal seabird officer Andrew de Blocq told delegates that a new electrified fence would also be installed along a small section of the shoreline to protect the birds from land-based predators.
In 1900, he said, there were nearly a million penguins at Dassen Island on the Cape West Coast. But the size of this formerly massive colony had been reduced to just a few thousand.
SA currently protects about 16,000 African penguin pairs (80% of the global population) with another 5,000 pairs in Namibia.
De Blocq says that while penguins face a combination of threats, one of the main reasons for their decline is a shortage of food next to their breeding colonies – specifically oil-rich sardines and anchovies whose numbers have declined or shifted owing to fishing pressure and climate change.
Because of these food shortages, penguins are having to move further from existing colonies to find enough fish (with one recent tracking project showing a foraging penguin swimming more than 500km over four days).
With fish concentrations having shifted eastwards, researchers believe the De Hoop Nature Reserve is the ideal place to establish a new colony.
BirdLife’s Christina Hagen, project officer for the new colony plan, notes that some penguins began gravitating naturally towards De Hoop about 10 years ago, when up to 30 pairs began to nest there.
However, these nests were raided by a variety of land-based predators, including leopard, caracal, mongoose and honey badger.
“The bird numbers at existing colonies elsewhere on the coast are going down every year. You need to have quite a large number to establish a new colony, so we can’t really wait any longer,” says Hagen.
In 2018, BirdLife teamed up with Cape Town artist Roelf Daling to sculpt the first clay moulds for the decoys. Daling has now cast 20 decoys in a variety of postures – some standing, others lying down as if nesting.
“We don’t really know for sure if this will work as it has never been done before with penguins, but because these birds are a colonial species we think there is every chance that the decoys will encourage more penguins to breed at De Hoop.”
Earlier this year, the team conducted preliminary tests with the first decoys at the Stony Point Penguin Colony.
“Some of the real penguins were quite curious and showed interest in the decoys, but they did not attack them, or ignore them.”
Hagen says bird decoys have been used in some restoration projects elsewhere in the world, including the Atlantic Puffin, but never with African penguins.
“This project has the potential to increase the penguin population and provide ‘insurance’ by increasing the number of colonies and reducing vulnerability to catastrophic events,” said BirdLife seabird conservation manager Dr Ross Wanless.
“While this process could occur naturally over several hundreds of years, we need to help it happen faster.”