African Journal of Marine Science

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Review of the rescue, rehabilitation and restoration of oiled seabirds in South Africa, especially African penguins Spheniscus demersus and Cape gannets Morus capensis, 1983–2005

AC Wolfaardt, AJ Williams, LG Underhill, RJM Crawford, PA Whittington


South Africa is a global hotspot for oil pollution. The regional oiled seabird cleaning centre, the South African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB), has handled over 50 000 seabirds from its inception in 1968 until 2005. The majority of seabirds oiled in South Africa are African penguins Spheniscus demersus, followed by Cape gannets Morus capensis, both of which are classified as Vulnerable to extinction. On the basis of the proportion of the population that has been  affected, the African penguin is considered to have suffered more from oiling than any other seabird species globally. The rehabilitation success  (proportion of birds known to have survived for at least one month in the wild) and restoration success (proportion of rehabilitated birds attempting to breed) of de-oiling penguins and gannets are higher than has been reported for any  other species. The financial costs of de-oiling African penguins are substantially lower than the costs of de-oiling seabirds in the Northern Hemisphere. De-oiling contaminated birds is thus a valuable conservation intervention for these species, both of which are relatively localised in areas within or close to major shipping routes and ports, where a single spill can threaten a large proportion of the global population. There are, however, long-term effects of oiling on penguins and gannets. De-oiled gannets survive slightly less well than un-oiled birds, but the difference is similar to inter-colony differences in survival. Approximately 27% of rehabilitated African penguins are unable to breed following their release. In addition, oiling has a long-term negative impact on the breeding productivity and cost of reproduction in de-oiled birds. The primary objective should therefore be to prevent or reduce oil spills in the first place. However, future oil spills are inevitable and the authorities need to ensure that they have plans in place and the required capacity to respond rapidly to spills when they do occur. One of the ways to reduce the number of penguins becoming oiled during a spill is to evacuate birds from the affected area. The continued capture and cleaning of penguins and gannets that do become oiled is justified on conservation grounds. Thus, de-oiling should be a twin objective to prevention in South Africa’s oil spill management strategy, and every effort should be made to further improve both of these aspects.

Keywords: African penguin; Cape gannet; Dassen Island; de-oiled; Morus capensis; oil spills; rehabilitation; rescue; restoration; SANCCOB; Spheniscus demersus

African Journal of Marine Science 2009, 31(1): 31–54

AJOL African Journals Online