Tiny white beach huts are a new type of real estate that are appearing along South Africa’s beaches and on the dry, barren islands off its coast. With great ventilation and an ocean view, they are sufficiently large to fit a group of African penguins. One-of-a-kind selling point: a cool, secure location where penguins can breed.
In contrast to their relatives, African penguins thrive in the South Atlantic Ocean’s frigid currents. However, as soon as they land, their thick black coat absorbs the heat, prompting a desperate search for shelter for both themselves and the delicate eggs they have laid.
In the past, the penguins of Africa dug burrows in the layers of guano, which was the accumulated feces of seabirds and bats. However, in the 19th century, traders began selling guano as fertilizer, leaving the penguins and their eggs more and more vulnerable to predators and the scorching sun.
African penguin populations have plummeted as a result of this and other threats like egg poaching, overfishing, and climate change. There were estimated to be less than 20,000 breeding pairs in 2019, down from 1.5 to 3 million in 1900. The IUCN has listed the species as endangered for more than a decade.
The African Penguin Nest Project, a coordinated effort between Dallas Zoo, AZA Safe, the Pan-African Association of Zoos and Aquaria, and the Dyer Island Conservation Trust, aims to deploy artificial nests to provide penguin parents with a safe and shaded place to raise their chicks. This is why conservationists have stepped in to help.
Imitating Mother Nature
While guano trade petered out by the late 1800s, replicating the layers that accumulated over thousands of years isn’t an option. Seabird populations have declined so much over time, there are simply not enough birds to recreate it, says Kevin Graham, associate curator of birds and ectotherms at Dallas Zoo and coordinator of the African Penguin Nest Project. Some estimate it would take around 600 years to produce one usable guano layer, he adds.
The project instead decided to construct artificial nests. Right away, they look genuinely basic – a domed construction produced using two formed shells of texture covered in clay slurry, with a little entry estimating around 20 centimeters wide. However, as Graham and other scientists worked out the best way to “emulate Mother Nature,” the design took years to develop.
According to Graham, the most challenging and crucial part was establishing the appropriate temperature and humidity inside the nest. The white paint reflects the sun, assisting in the maintenance of an interior temperature of less than 35 degrees Celsius, and the two-layered design and ventilation holes produce an air conditioning effect. The structure of eggs is extremely delicate; They will only be incubated at a temperature of 38 to 39 degrees. He explains that any higher than that, there is a very real risk that the eggs’ unborn chicks will die.
The project began using the nests toward the end of 2018. They ran into penguins in a matter of minutes, according to Graham. That demonstrates how desperate they are to find a secure nesting site at any opportunity.
The data also show that there is a demand for the ceramic houses: Graham says that at least 99 percent of people use them, and the rates of successful hatching and fledging of chicks in artificial nests are much higher than in natural ones elsewhere.
On Dyer Island, a barren, windswept isle off the coast of South Africa’s Western Cape that once housed some of the largest colonies of African penguins, more than 500 nests have been constructed.
The local government organization, CapeNature, claims to have already begun to reap the benefits.
According to Andrae Marais, CapeNature’s conservation manager for the island, “with the historic removal of guano, (the nests) are the next-best option to give penguins that opportunity and ensure the survival of those chicks and the fledglings.” He adds that while it is a step in the right direction, it must be combined with other conservation efforts to ensure the birds’ food security, such as establishing no-fishing zones around the colonies.
Graham concurs that providing African penguins with a secure location to breed is not the only factor that is necessary for the recovery of the population. He asserts that it is not simply a case of “we give them a nest, the species is saved.” It is a significant component, but there must be more.
Flying the nest
Donations are required for the project, and individuals or groups can sponsor individual nests. Graham anticipates that a single nest can accommodate approximately 30 nesting events and possibly up to 60 chicks at a cost of $75 and a lifespan of at least 15 years.
The African Penguin Nest Project has set up more than 1,500 nests in five of South Africa’s penguin colonies so far. Next year, it plans to expand into Namibia, the only other nation with penguin breeding populations.
Graham asserts that in order to safeguard the penguins that are currently nesting in exposed areas, they will need to deploy at least 4,500 additional ceramic homes. “This is still just a drop in the bucket,” he says. The objective is to provide a nest for each penguin that requires one.