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Zoos and Aquaria on a Mission to Save the African Penguin

By Ellen Johnson

Graduate Student at University of Connecticut, Department of Marine Sciences

Zoos and aquaria are increasingly stepping up to the front lines of biodiversity conservation efforts, emphasizing research and conservation action in addition to education. This commitment to conservation is reflected in the mission of the Mystic Aquarium: “to inspire people to care for and protect our ocean planet through conservation, education and research.”

Mystic Aquarium is part of the Association of Zoos & Aquariums Saving Animals from Extinction (AZA SAFE) program, which harnesses the power of AZA members’ expertise and influence to save endangered species. One of these species is the African Penguin, whose populations plummeted by an estimated 90% between 1910 and the early 1990s. Today, less than 18,000 breeding pairs remain, which amounts to less than 2% of their historical abundance. This number is well below the minimum viable population of about 50,000 pairs, which means African penguins may go extinct in the wild within this century if their situation does not improve.

African penguins, endemic to just two countries, are threatened by human disturbances, oil spills, habitat degradation, and climate change, among other issues. The most serious immediate threat to the birds is food shortages related to environmental fluctuations and the commercial fishing of sardines and anchovy.

Zoos and aquaria support healthy African penguin populations by conducting ex-situ research (research conducted outside of the animal’s natural habitat) on penguin health and behavior and improving penguin husbandry practices and welfare. Funds generated by zoos and aquaria can go toward in-situ (on-site) research and conservation projects and provide assistance during disasters like oil spills. Mystic Aquarium has been raising funds and awareness for African Penguin conservation since 2006 with the Annual Run/Walk for the Penguins and other events. They have sent team members to South Africa to help care for sick and abandoned chicks for many years, participated in oil spill response and contributed to continuing research projects.

Despite massive conservation efforts, such as the successful rehabilitation and release of 18,000 oiled penguins after the MV Treasure oil spill in 2000 and ongoing rescue and release projects, African Penguin populations are still in decline. As part of AZA’s Species Survival Plan (SSP) for the African Penguin, AZA members, including Mystic Aquarium, work to maintain a healthy and sustainable population of African Penguins in zoos and aquaria.

While the African penguin SSP population is healthy and stable, these animals cannot be reintroduced into the wild because the threats that have led to their decline, including habitat destruction, oil spills, and loss of food, continue to endanger wild penguins.

Despite this, it is important to maintain a healthy SSP population because penguins in zoos and aquaria are conservation ambassadors that help raise awareness about the issues affecting wild penguins.

Public outreach and education is perhaps the most valuable way in which zoos and aquaria promote conservation. These institutions help educate the public about conservation issues and engage visitors in conservation action.  Visitors to the Mystic Aquarium learn about African penguin biology and conservation through the penguin exhibit. Penguin Encounter programs allow participants to experience a deeper personal connection with the birds.

Gayle Sirpenski, Animal Management Specialist at Mystic Aquarium and one of the co-coordinators of the SAFE African Penguin SSP Sustainability Project, says, “Once our guests understand that African penguins could disappear from the wild, we hope that they feel inspired and want to help,” whether that’s by donating to the conservation fund, eating sustainable seafood, or reducing their use of plastics. “Whatever action they feel they can take, that’s what we try to get them to do, just take one little step.”

Read more about endangered species conservation at my blog, CurrentSea.

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