Tens of thousands of endangered penguins saved from oil spill in massive operation

The breeding population of African penguins of the Cape Town coast in South Africa has returned to its original level prior to a devastating spill in June 2000, with as many as 40,000 birds moved from the oil spill area through a huge and meticulous operation involving volunteers from all over the world.

On 23 June 2000, the oil tanker Treasure sank off the coast of South Africa, near Cape Town, spilling its cargo into an area of the sea which is home to 44% of the world’s population of African penguins, described as the world’s worst coastal bird disaster (see related story).

However, massive disaster was averted by a textbook operation which mobilised thousands of volunteers. The operation was managed by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), whose Oiled Wildlife Response Team is directed by the International Bird Rescue Research Centre (IBRRC). Rescuers moved over 20,000 oiled birds to two rehabilitation centres in Cape Town where they were washed, fed and exercised in order to keep up their strength until they were ready to be returned to the wild. Less than 2,000 of the rescued birds died from their ordeal.

A further 19,500 clean birds were removed from two islands in danger of being swamped by the oil slick, and released 800km (500 miles) along the coast off Port Elizabeth, where it was known that it would take the birds several weeks to return to their home, by which time the spill would have cleared, a IBRRC spokesperson told edie.

The spill occurred during breeding time, and fortunately many chicks were rescued. However, many eggs being incubated were thought to have been lost, and it is not known how many chicks were hidden in deep burrows, and therefore also lost.

However, a recent count on Robben Island – one of those affected by the spill, and, incidentally, the one on which Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 27 years – found a total population of 20,500, including 6,700 breeding pairs. “This is 1,000 more breeding pairs than last year and proof that a species can recover when quick response and proper procedures are followed immediately following a spill,” said IBRRC Director and veteran of over 100 oil spills Jay Holcomb. “We are very excited to have helped preserve this endangered species. Working as members of the International Fund for Animal Welfare’s (IFAW) Emergency Relief Team, we were able to save 90.3% of the 20,251 oiled African penguins treated, several thousand of which were chicks that would have surely died.”

The rescuers have outlined a number of requirements for successful management of an oiled wildlife response programme. Trained, quality staff need to be available to be mobilised immediately, with a strong chain of command and clearly defined roles, and a highly defined focus on what is best for the animals, combined with good communication through daily meetings. It is also critical to ensure workers are enjoying their task, and are able to see how important their role is, so that they remain enthusiastic and committed. Finally, a centralised facility to house the bulk of the animals and staff helps to reduce logistical problems.

The IBRRC was founded in 1971 in response to a devastating oil spill beneath the Golden Gate Bridge. “We’ve gone from saving almost no birds in 1971 to saving over 90% of the birds rescued from the Treasure spill in 2000,” said Holcomb. “The rescue and rehabilitation of oiled wildlife is valid and we have proven we can save a species from possible extinction. We’ve come a long way and we’ve done what others said couldn’t be done.”

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