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Turning the Tides on African Penguin Extinction

By Laurie Macha, Curator, MM&B, Mystic Aquarium  

Today I watched as over 500 people ran our 13th Annual Run/Walk for the Penguins. While I am always incredibly grateful to all the guests for their participation in this wonderful event and their support of our efforts to save the endangered African penguin, this year was even more meaningful to me.  

Today I am the curator of Marine Mammals & Birds at Mystic Aquarium, but I got my start working with and caring for penguins. So, as you can imagine they are near and dear to my heart. And, their plight is one that causes me great distress not only as an animal care professional with a long history but as a human being.  

Earlier this week I read the 2019 Census Update from Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB) which reported that there are fewer than 40,000 African penguins left in the world! Tears welled up in my eyes when it hit methis is really happening.  I am going to see this species become extinct.  While we are making tremendous efforts to save the African penguin the population continues to decline. Unless we mitigate the causes and threats to their survival, this amazing species is going to be gone in the wild. 

There could actually be a world without African penguins! 

I replayed in my mind all of the things that we are doing at Mystic Aquarium from helping conservation efforts in the field to educating and inspiring children and families.  We participate in the Species Survival Plan (SSP) with our colleagues in the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) and we are caring for a colony of 31 African penguins that are part of a robust, healthy population of African penguins in zoos and aquariums in the United States. Our research program here at Mystic Aquarium is the VERY BEST in the world and has far-reaching effects (beyond just African penguins)!  

Events like the run/walk and the recently celebrated African Penguin Awareness day are critically important. A portion of the proceeds from todays event will support mission programs including our penguin conservation efforts 

Like we have for decades, because of the participation in today’s fundraising run/walk, Mystic Aquarium will send a staff member to South Africa to support the rescue and rehabilitation efforts of SANCCOB later this year. 

I was the first from Mystic Aquarium to travel to South Africa for penguin conservation efforts. On June 23, 2000, a bulk ore carrier, the MV Treasure, as a result of a damaged hull, sank off the coast of South Africa between Dassen and Robben islandsspilling over 1,300 tons of bunker oil and oiling nearly 20,000 birds! At the time, these islands were home to two of the largest colonies of African Penguins in the entire world.  

Arriving as part of the second round of responders to go to South African from the US, it was devastating as Robben Island was completely engulfed by oil during breeding season. The entire island was evacuatedTriage was done to save as many of the birds as possible. Only 100 young chicks that had the best chance of survival were able to be rehabilitated 

To take this trip, my first out of the country, I had to leave my then 4yearold son for the first timeSouth Africa was still in turmoil with Apartheid just recently abolished. It was still a bit dangerous for Americans coming into the country 

Never having washed a penguin before, my extensive experience in welfare, behavior, and handling of African penguins was critical to my success in this crisis. We worked in the wash rooms for an average of 10 hours a day before entering the large holding areas with anywhere from 500-1,000 penguins to be fed.  I was able to be on the first release of the now cleaned birds back to Robben Island. It was on my last day – my experience came full circle and changed my life.  At this time there were over 150,000 African penguins.  

In 2007, I returned to South Africa to participate in Earthwatch on Robben Island where, for two weeks, I assisted researchers to collect data on African penguins. We participated in nest, molt and wildlife counts, chick morphometries, transponder tagging and resights. We even did stomach content sampling. It was incredibly gratifying to help in these efforts and even more so when seeing tagged birds from the Treasure oil spill (as well surviving penguins tagged following the MV Apollo Sea oil spill in 1994).  

I became a very favored penguin wrangler due to my extensive skills in handling adult birdsmaking it much easier for the researchers to collect data. 

The year 2008 was Mystic Aquarium’s first year assisting with SANCCOB’s Chick Bolstering project and I was the first to make the trip as wellThere were over 900 African penguin chicks abandoned that year due to lack of fish availability and abnormal moltI was responsible for a pen of 100 penguin chicksBased on my level of experience, I was also assigned to teach volunteers how to handle, feed, medicate and hydrate penguin chicks. We worked 12 hour days for 2 weeks. It is incredibly emotional to see starving, thin chicksMany chicks didn’t make it, but thankfully the majority did! At this time there were about 75,000 African penguins left in the wild.  

Let me share with you an excerpt from SANCCOB to help explain the African Penguin Chick Bolstering Project which “was established in an effort to reverse the decline of the African penguin population by rescuing and releasing hand-reared chicks back into the wild, rescuing penguin eggs for hatching and hand-rearing, and conducting related research. The project is recognized globally as one of the most successful conservation initiatives to reverse the decline of the endangered species.”  

I returned to SANCCOB in 2010 as a pen supervisor to assist with chick bolstering. There were approximately 500 chicks total and 60,000 birds left at the time. In 2012, I supervised a pen of about 80; there were approximately 300 chicks total and 60,000 birds.  

You can see the unfortunate downward trend!  

Our aquarium team, including Tracy Camp and Josh Davis, has continued to travel there annually in support of these incredible and critical efforts. In December, Amy Sugrue will make the trip.   

I’m proud to say that our reach goes beyond helping in the field. As I mentioned earlier, we reach millions of children through our education and outreach programs. But there is even more than that.  

This year, I’m celebrating an anniversary, of sorts.  You’ll have seen a pattern here of efforts and opportunities that have made me proud. (I am a very fortunate individual!).  

Back in 1999 (yes, some 20 years ago), I , along with several of my then colleagues, made a presentation at the annual conference for the International Marine Animal Trainers’ Association (IMATA) on Techniques Used for Training Husbandry Behaviors to African Penguins 

Mystic Aquarium was able to develop a proactive approach to penguin husbandry to include visual examinations, bird weights, as well as foot, eye and mouth examinations as part of routine veterinary physical examination, all with little or no physical restraint.  Because penguins are not overly food motivated, we developed alternative techniques relying on tactile rewards. 

All these essential husbandry behaviors are necessary to allow each individual bird to participate in their own health care.  By performing husbandry behaviors, the animals are actively volunteering to participate in any medical treatment that may need to occur.   

Training marine mammals through positive reinforcement training is a rewarding experience.  Being able to build trusting relationships with the animals everyday allows for important behaviors to be trained that allow us to take care of and help towards the conservation of animals 

And, while techniques evolve with not only medical advancements but animal welfare, I am proud to say this work is the gold standard for African penguin care today.  These same techniques are still being used today by our accredited colleagues.  

Recently, the team of animal care professionals here at Mystic Aquarium and I have had the opportunity to expand our reach for best practices and unrivaled animal care by working with the Penguin care team at Marineland as they prepare to open a new Magellanic penguin habitat in 2020. These animal care professionals are dedicated to the evolution of their facility and are unwavering in their desire to provide the best possible care to their animals! I, personally, am thrilled to see their passion. With the plight of animals around the globe, the more support we can have in species conservation the better!  

I’m proud to say that zoos and aquariums in the US and across the world have helped to save multiple species from extinction. I know that with the help of our visitors and supporters we can mitigate the threat to the African penguins’ survival. I just know we can turn the tide! 

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