The jackass penguin, a flightless
seabird, is found nowhere in the world except off the
coast of southern Africa, i.e. it is endemic to this
area. It breeds on 24 offshore islands between
Namibia and Port Elizabeth. Additional colonies were
established in the 1980s on the mainland at Betty's
Bay and Simonstown. There is also a colony on the
mainland of Namibia, although it is not known when
this colony was established. Nesting on the mainland
is unusual for jackass penguins because they are
ground-nesting birds and are vulnerable to the many
predators on the mainland.
Jackass penguins used to nest by
burrowing into guano (bird droppings which have
accumulated into a hardish substance, sometimes
several metres deep). Most of the nutrient-rich guano
was removed for fertiliser in the 19th century.
Penguins now nest in burrows in sand, under
overhanging rocks, under bushes, or even in the open.
Jackass penguins can breed at any time of the year,
usually laying two eggs. Most adult birds feed during
the day and the chicks are fed regurgitated food in
the late afternoon. The parent birds take turns in
guarding the nest site and catching food. Fish eaten
include sardine, maasbanker and anchovy. Squid are
The total present population of jackass penguins is
about 120 000 birds. In 1930, the total population
numbered at least 1,2 million birds. Penguin numbers
have therefore decreased by at least 90% in 60 years,
and this fall is continuing. Dassen Island, off Yzerfontein, may have once sheltered over 1 million
penguins - it now has about 30 000. Dyer Island, near Gaansbaai, now has about 20 000 penguins. The largest
colony at present is St. Croix Island near Port
Elizabeth, with about 50 000 penguins.
THREATS TO PENGUINS
The collapse of the jackass penguin population this
century has been a result of the following:
* Harvesting of eggs for human
* Reduction of the penguin's food
supply by commercial fishing.
* Oil pollution from oil tankers.
This could devastate the major colonies. Oil tankers
may illegally clean out their tanks as they pass
round the Cape to fill up with oil in the middle
* Large-scale removal of guano in
the 19th century has decreased the ability of
penguins to construct nests through burrowing. This
has led to increased competition for breeding space
with larger animals such as seals. Penguins breeding
on the mainland are vulnerable to mainland predators
not found on islands, such as leopards, genets and
domestic dogs and cats, and also to human disturbance
unless the colonies are adequately fenced and
All the islands where jackass penguins breed, except
Robben Island, are protected as provincial nature
reserves or fall within the West Coast National Park.
However, there is competition with seals for the
limited breeding space available on some islands, and
some individual seals are known to kill and eat
penguins. At Mercury Island seals have been
successfully displaced from penguin breeding sites.
At Dassen and Robben Islands steps have been taken to
eliminate the feral cat populations.
Efforts have been made to protect
the new mainland breeding colonies at Betty's Bay and
Simonstown. A 100-metre fence has been erected at
Stony Point peninsula at Betty's Bay, and this is
successfully preventing human disturbance and attacks
by predators. The colony has grown to more than 100
The South African National
Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds
(SANCCOB) carries out valuable work in rescuing
oil-soaked penguins (and other seabirds) and
rehabilitating them back to the wild. SANCCOB has one
of the world's highest rates of success in saving
oiled seabirds, primarily because penguins respond
better to captivity and cleaning than do flying
WHAT YOU CAN DO
* Support SANCCOB as a volunteer, cleaning and
feeding oil- soaked or injured penguins and other
* Take oiled or injured penguins or
seabirds to SANCCOB.
* Support SANCCOB by raising money
for their work.
DID YOU KNOW?
* Jackass penguins are fast swimmers with an average
speed of about 7 km\hour.
* Jackass penguins are efficient
navigators. One oiled penguin which was rescued,
cleaned and released on Robben Island in August 1971,
travelled 800 km to Port Elizabeth within a month.
ROBERTS' BIRDS OF SOUTHERN
AFRICA. G.L. Maclean. John Voelcker Bird
Fund, Cape Town, 1985.
OCEANS OF LIFE OFF SOUTHERN
AFRICA. A. Payne and R. Crawford (eds).
Vlaeberg Publishers, Cape Town, 1989.
SECRETS OF THE
Illustrated guide to marine life off southern Africa.
A. Payne and R. Crawford (eds). Vlaeberg Publishers,
Cape Town, 1992.
All books are available from Russel
Friedman Books, PO Box 73, Halfway House 1685. Tel.
(South African National Foundation for the
Conservation of Coastal Birds). Cape Town,
PO Box 11-116, Bloubergrant, 7443. Tel. 021-5576155.
Dept. Environment and
Cultural Affairs (previously Cape Nature
Conservation) P/Bag X9086, Cape Town, 8000.
Tel. 021-483 4227.
National Parks Board.
PO Box 7400, Roggebaai, 8012. Tel. 021-222816.
Dept. Environment Affairs
and Tourism: Sea Fisheries Research Institute.
P/Bag X2, Roggebaai, 8012. Tel. 021-402 3911.