Emily van Rijswijck
His name is Jay and he is a born and bred African. Originally from the biggest colony of African penguins on the continent, St Croix Island in Algoa Bay, Jay now lives the good life at the South African Marine Rehabilitation and Education Centre (Samrec) at Cape Recife Nature Reserve in Port Elizabeth.
After two attempts to release him back into the wild – without success, perhaps because Jay believes he is not yet ready – volunteers at the centre have adopted him as a permanent fixture and fellow volunteer.
"Clearly Jay finds the rehabilitated life more agreeable, so we have decided that he can stay and become our mascot," says Samrec volunteer Libby Sharwood.
Sharwood has been involved with the rescue and rehabilitation of African penguins since 2000 when she started work as a volunteer at Bay World, the Port Elizabeth natural and cultural museum.
With Bay World facilities running at capacity and stray birds putting the healthy penguin population there at risk, Sharwood decided to move the rescue facility to her house – a daunting task if one considers the smell and noise factor that comes with the little creatures.
Finally, in 2009, with the help of funding from the National Lottery, the Samrec centre finally opened at its new facilities in Cape Recife, a headland at the southwestern tip of Algoa Bay.
The centre works on the principles of the four Rs: rescue, rehabilitate, research and release with a strong emphasis on education. Over 2 000 schoolchildren visit every year, as well as the general public.
The programme also has a school adoption component. The latest beneficiary is the Lonwabi Primary school, which caters for disabled children at an informal settlement outside Port Elizabeth.
"Some of these kids have never seen a shell, let alone a penguin," says Eddy Molekoa, educational manager.
Saving the African penguin
Jay is one of about 120 African penguins which make it to the centre yearly, thanks for the most part to the help of caring individuals who pick up stray animals on their daily beach walks.
"The public is amazing," admits Sharwood.
Jay first washed up at Pollok Beach in 2010, "a very cold, underweight baby," recalls Sharwood. With his many quirks, he has since stolen the hearts of volunteers, especially when he tries to catch dragonflies and mosquitoes.
Recently, the centre released 23 penguins at Port Elizabeth’s Hobie Beach. Says animal manager Jared Harding: "We are not a zoo. We try to release the penguins back into the wild as soon as they are healthy. Keeping them at the centre is actually stressful to them."
But their rescue efforts remain a drop in the ocean.
"For the extinction rate to be halted, we need to save about 1 000 animals a year." Sharwood likens the severity of the situation to the similar fate facing rhinos.
"In 2000, we were told that if nothing is done, in 30 years no more African penguins would exist. The situation is now worse, with extinction looming within five years," she says.
This month has been a particularly busy one for Samrec as the breeding season kicked off early and with fish numbers dwindling and penguin parents having to venture further off, a number of stray chicks have been found on the beaches, some still kitted-out in their fluffy coats.
Like other facilities in Cape Town, Mosselbay, Jeffreys and Tenikwa, Samrec is constantly challenged to find enough fish for the centre, as well as meet the monthly vet’s bill, especially during breeding time.
Human interference and global warming are the biggest risk factors for these vulnerable birds. With water temperatures rising, sea currents are moving further offshore, and this is where the schools of sardines and pilchards are found.
Having to swim further for food has a severe impact on the amount of food the chick receives when the parent returns from hunting, and on the population in general.
St Croix and Bird islands are where the two biggest colonies gather, with a healthy population also thriving at Boulders Beach in Cape Town. The latter colony is a fine example of how man and beast have learnt to live together in peaceful harmony.
It is estimated that there are about 6 000 African penguins left.