Penguin politics: Human dynamics in the African penguin conservation debate

Penguin politics: Human dynamics in the African penguin conservation debate 

Linda Holcombe, MESc 20151


African penguins, the only species endemic to mainland Africa, have been steadily and consistently disappearing from the coasts of South Africa and Namibia. Many experts point to competition with small pelagic purse-seine fisheries as the most important current threat. Penguins and human fisheries both target schools of Cape anchovy and sardine which have historically congregated along the western coast.

This study sought to gather preliminary results on the perceptions of the fishing, conservation, and other communities in and around Cape Town, South Africa, related to African penguin conservation. Significant themes that emerged include a lack of awareness of the South African public about African penguin issues, disagreement among penguin conservation advocates regarding conservation approaches, ambivalence on the part of fishermen towards penguins as a species, and mixed opinions as to whether penguins and fishers have much direct interaction. The key issue, however, is one that likely confounds many conservation initiatives around the world—those responsible for making critical management decisions must choose which scientific recommendations to follow: navigating competing social, political, economic, and scientific interests and uncertainty in their efforts to do right by their country’s inhabitants.


African penguin (Spheniscus demersus L., Figs. 1 & 2) populations have declined by approximately 98% since the beginning of the 20th century: Once estimated at around 1–2 million pairs, the current population is down to approx. 26,000 pairs (Crawford et al. 2011). Naturally breeding in Namibia and South Africa, these penguins experienced heavy harvest of both eggs and guano, a primary driver for decline over several decades. Currently, both practices have been either outlawed or discontinued, but the now dramatically reduced populations face new threats such as habitat encroachment, climate change, oil pollution, and fishing competition. As of 2010, the IUCN Redlist has up-listed the African penguin to “endangered” status (IUCN 2014).

Articles written as early as 1976 suggested a preference to focus on more visible, less controversial topics in penguin conservation—such as the highly publicized oiled penguin rehabilitation stories. Frost et al. (1976) questioned the attention given to rescue and rehabilitation of African penguins, claiming that it distracted the public, donors, and politicians from the real problem facing penguin survival: overfishing. Such a preference would be understandable given the inspirational stories associated with oil rescue (e.g., deNapoli 2014), and the highly contested nature of fisheries in post-apartheid South Africa. Since 1994, the government and fishing industry continue to struggle in reallocating limited quotas and permit entry of thousands of previously disadvantaged fishers into commercial fisheries (e.g., Nielsen & Hara 2006). At stake is the potential collapse of vital commercial stocks, as happened recently in neighboring Namibia (Crawford et al. 1995). In the context of this struggle, there is reluctance to further restrict Western Cape fishing grounds by closing areas that surround penguin breeding islands (Coetzee 2010).

Fig. 1. Adult African penguin. Credit: L. Holcombe.

The literature demonstrates the conflicted nature of current penguin conservation: a vocal majority raises alarm at the continued decline of penguin populations and their apparent correlation with small pelagic schools of Sardines (Sardinops ocellatus Pappe) and Cape Anchovy (Engraulis capensis Gilchrist) shifting from West to East. This well-documented shift (e.g., Crawford et al. 1995) takes the bulk of stock away from the vast majority of fishing capacity and effort in the Western Cape area of South Africa, where fish processing facilities, as well as virtually all penguin breeding colonies, are located. The prevailing academic theory is that heavy fishing effort in the West is leading to less fish in the water around breeding islands to sustain the significant food requirements for breeding birds (Whittington et al. 2005, Pichegru et al. 2012).

The opposition suggests that there is plenty of sardine and anchovy biomass in the water and other factors must be responsible for penguin decline. The current, controversial arrangement is a series of experimental closures of waters around penguin breeding islands that is expected to “prove or disprove” the effectiveness of marine protected areas in preventing penguin extinction. The skeptical group, mostly supported by the fishing industry, expects solid proof of penguin population increase before agreeing to maintain these closures. The conservation side calls for precautionary management, insisting that you cannot prove a long-term measure before you do it, and that a handful of years with shifting closures is not enough to indicate the success or failure of this measure.

In this study, I sought to understand the perspectives between the lines of the literature. As a penguin keeper in several aquariums, I was very familiar with the anatomy, biology, and general conservation principles related to African penguins. Given my work, I was also aware of my existing bias towards conservation. However, the goal was to explore perspectives of African penguin conservation on the ground in their native territory. The main target of this inquiry was the fishing community, given the already strained internal and conservation relationships, and their position as the accused primary driver of penguin population decline. I also hoped to better understand the dynamics within the penguin conservation community beyond the Biodiversity Management Plan (Department of Environmental Affairs 2013). Overall, I wanted to understand what the human issues are in the attempt to prevent African penguin extinction. Participant observation, informal data gathering, and formal semi-structured interviews were used to seek answers to the following guiding questions:

  1. What interactions do African penguins and Western Cape fishers have? Are they mostly positive, negative, or neutral?

  2. What is the conservation/NGO perspective on the African penguin conservation debate?

  3. What are the various interests/perspectives/ motivations behind in the African penguin conservation plan (including the recent Biodiversity Management Plan) and related discussions?

Human issues in African penguin conservation

Key findings emerged under two main themes: (1) the expected fishing interactions (or lack thereof) with penguins, and (2) the politics of penguin conservation. The latter theme was the most surprising given African penguin conservation is very neutral and popular in zoos and aquariums (Holcombe, personal observation).

Penguin-fishing interactions

Accessing the fishing community was the biggest challenge of the project. Impediments such as language and fishing season were not the least of the barriers—I was also warned that the fishing community tended to be skeptical and suspicious of conservation researchers. However, among the participants interviewed, two competing narratives came forward. The first was the most prevalent and denied any overlap between African penguins and the fishing community. While artisanal fishing was not discussed in depth, commercial fishing was said to take place too far offshore to compete with penguins directly or even cause penguin by-catch mortality. Frequently I was told “fishermen never see penguins”. Scientific observers monitor vessels such as trawlers and long-liners that target “linefish” (e.g., hake and tuna), but they do not observe small pelagic purse-seine vessels which target sardines and anchovy—key prey for penguins. The lack of recorded penguin by-catch or gear interaction was often referred to as proof that the birds and vessels never overlapped. These reports, though, raised an interesting question: does a lack of data showing interactions exist because the interactions do not happen? Or is there no data because there is limited or no formal observation or reporting? According to the majority of those interviewed, including former and current government workers, academic conservationists, and associates of the fishing community, penguins are not directly impacted by the small pelagic industry because they do not overlap spatially and even if they did, the penguins are smart and fast enough to escape entanglement in the purse-seine nets.

Some other conversations revealed a different story. Conservationists and a former fishing industry worker suggested that penguins and commercial fishing not only overlapped while competing for small pelagics, but that penguins were sometimes killed in the process. One source even spoke of penguins and other local seabirds being ensnared on baited hooks or caught up and crushed in various nets. This participant emphasized the negative, but not necessarily deliberate, relationship between penguins and the fishing industry. He spoke of hasty and deadly removal of hooks from seabirds and the weight of netted catches squashing anything caught within them, penguins included. A conservation-minded individual himself, he asked colleagues why they didn’t take an extra second to remove hooks safely or shoo birds from the nets. The response was almost invariably “my friend, I am here to catch fish. I need to feed my family and the more fish I catch the more money I make. I do not have time for seabirds.” Another fisher responded to his efforts: “if you want to save seabirds, you can get your own boat. Me, I am here to fish.” Others questioned the assertion that penguins did not overlap with small pelagic vessels given that penguins can swim many kilometers in each foraging event, and have been recorded on trips ranging from 10–15 hours (Petersen et al. 2006). Because penguins and the small pelagic industry target the same shoals of fish on the Western Cape, it is hard to imagine them not spatially overlapping. Further, it is worth noting again that the few fishery observation workers are stationed primarily on trawlers and long line vessels, not on small pelagic vessels. These observers do collect data on albatross and Cape Gannet sightings and interactions, two other endangered sea birds, but not on penguins. Penguin/fishery interaction data is solicited voluntarily, solicited since 2013, but nothing had been reported at the time of this inquiry (Conservation participant, personal communication).

A few references were made to deliberately harmful interactions between fishers and African penguins. A long-standing rivalry exists between the Cape Fur seal population and the fishing community on the Western Cape, and fishers have long lobbied for the rights to shoot problem animals who reportedly steal from catches. It appears this suspicion may extend to seabirds as well. I was directed to a 2000 news article that reported “chakka” (squid) fishers shooting at African penguins recently released by a rehabilitation center following the 2000 Treasure oil tanker spill (Horler 2000). The fishers did not know this was a batch of recently rescued birds being released and thought them thieves of their squid catch. As soon as they discovered that these penguins were part of a release, the shooting reportedly stopped (Horler 2000). It is unclear how many penguins were injured or killed by this particular incident as none washed ashore and the fishing vessels that were witness to the event were not forthcoming (Horler 2000). For context, although African penguins can eat squid, their preferred wild prey is almost exclusively anchovy and sardine. The participant that spoke of this article intimated that the story was not unique and it was possible events like this continue to occur. The difficulty is that without observers on every vessel, an unrealistic expectation, there is no way to gauge how common this interaction is. There is also a strong code of silence among fishermen, briefly referred to in Horler’s article (2000), which would prevent authorities from accessing any details or even awareness of such incidents.

Overall, it does not appear that the small pelagic fishing industry or its members harbor negative associations with African penguins. Instead, penguins are often not even on the radar of this industry except when the potential for island closure to protect breeding birds threatens to restrict already limited access to fish. The reports of deliberate harm intended towards penguins are very few, while it remains unclear whether there is incidental harm as a result of fishing practices. The lack of strongly negative attitudes towards penguins, however, may be cause for optimism in future penguin conservation.

Beyond fishing

Other notable observations included the prevalent lack of awareness of African penguin’s endangered status among local South Africans. Even residents living near penguin colonies were surprised to hear that African penguins were listed as endangered. Without exception, every non-governmental or conservation-connected individual encountered was unaware of the African penguins’ predicament. This observation was mirrored by the experience of local conservation centers. Education and community outreach is a major component of current conservation planning, and my experience on the ground supports the need for such attention. Conservation facilities are focusing on the idea of empathy generation among South Africans towards seabirds in the hopes of inspiring both awareness and recognition of the intrinsic value of these species will help spur interest, support, and cooperation with current and future initiatives (two conservation participants, personal communication).

Fig. 2. Adult African penguin and young. Credit: L. Holcombe.


The story of African penguin conservation is infinitely more convoluted than visitors to an African penguin exhibit in a zoo or aquarium would imagine. The main barrier to effective interventions and conservation measures is dissonance and fracture among invested parties. The split is twofold: on the national level, the debate of precautionary versus strongly substantiated approaches results in impotence. There is also an apparent scarcity of solidarity among conservation groups which may hamper further progress under the new Biodiversity Management Plan (Department of Environmental Affairs 2013). The arguments remain in the realm of science and politics, especially since the public has little to no awareness of the problem.

Solving these problems would first require finding methods to bridge differences between the various conservation interests in order to create a unified voice in support of positive changes for penguins. Second, observers should be mandatory on all fishing vessels (not just trawlers and long-liners) and the data collected should include penguin sightings and interactions with vessels/fishing operations. Third, fishing industry-directed workshops on penguin conservation should be developed and implemented. There has been great success in this area with the same approach to albatrosses, even creating champions among fishermen for albatross conservation (multiple participants, personal communication).

Ideally, fishing pressure would be split evenly between the Eastern and the Western Capes, or preferably concentrated where fish stocks are now concentrated: on the East Coast. This approach would both alleviate tensions on local ecosystems trying to balance intense effort with waning stocks, and improve fishing efficiency by concentrating effort where catch is most available. Unfortunately, this scenario is unlikely because the West has historically been the hub of the nation’s fishing industry and relocating processing facilities could be prohibitively costly and inconvenient. Hope for African penguin survival may instead rest on proactively addressing the spatial mismatch between fish, fisheries, and breeding islands, and fostering awareness of penguins as a species with intrinsic value whose disappearance will have unanticipated effects throughout this vital ecosystem.


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  1. Linda Holcombe is a 2nd year Master of Environmental Science candidate at F&ES where she has focused on wildlife conservation and, more recently, international wildlife trafficking and crime. She came to F&ES with a B.S. in Criminal Justice and a minor in Marine Studies from Northeastern University, as well as six years of animal husbandry experience working with several aquariums and non-profits. While at F&ES she has completed independent research in South Africa, an internship with the International Gorilla Conservation Programme in Rwanda, and attended the 2014 IUCN World Parks Congress. Her professional and research interests include marine life conservation, animal care and husbandry, and anti-poaching and trafficking. When not working or studying she enjoys scuba diving, photography, and reading.

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