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20,000 patient penguins

Responding to the world's largest seabird rehabilitation effort in South Africa

Photo of oiled penguins Treasure tanker spill, South Africa

Oiled penguins on Robben Island try to preen oil off feathers during Treasure oil spill off Cape Town, South Africa in 2000.
(Photo: John Hrusa/IFAW)

On June 23, 2000 the damaged bulk ore carrier MV Treasure sank off the coast of South Africa between Dassen and Robben Islands, which support the largest and third largest colonies of African Penguins (Spheniscus demersus), worldwide. The ship spilled over 1,300 tons of bunker oil, which immediately oiled thousands of penguins.

The Treasure oil spill caused thousands of African penguins on Dassen and Robben Island, off the coast of South Africa, to become oiled and threatened still tens of thousands more. These two islands are the first and third largest breeding colonies of African Penguins in world, the worldwide population is currently less than 180,000.

Response team photo

Within hours of the disaster at sea, a sense of the overwhelming dread began to sink in, as it became obvious thousands of penguins were being oiled. The largest oiled animal rehabilitation effort in history had taken place after the 1994 Apollo Sea oil spill when almost 10,000 African penguins were oiled near Cape Town. It was soon apparent that the Treasure spill had the potential of oiling more than twice the number of birds oiled from the Apollo Sea.

The numbers of oiled penguins at the Treasure oil spill was unprecedented in rehabilitation history. © Jon Hrusa/IFAW

Never before has there been such a massive effort to capture and rehabilitate oiled seabirds. As reports of the devastation from the Treasure spill became known, it was apparent that this would be a wildlife response like none other ever attempted. The single largest International Oiled Wildlife Response Team in the world was assembled by the International Fund for Animal Welfare to care for over 20,000 oiled African penguins. The entire rehabilitation program in Cape Town, South Africa lasted more than ten weeks.

The Potential Impact on African Penguins

Immediately after the MV Treasure sank there were reports of oiled penguins on Robben Island, home to approximately 18,000 African penguins. The spill occurred in the middle of breeding season so the majority of the island residents were actually on nests with either eggs or chicks. The Cape Nature Conservation (CNC), the cape region ís wildlife trustee agency, immediately began a massive collection program that brought thousands of oiled penguins to The Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB). It was obvious that SANCCOB ís limited space would quickly become overrun with birds and a much larger facility would be needed. Within hours of the oil spill, SANCCOB requested the aid of the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) and together they initiated a massive rehabilitation program. The IFAW International Oiled Wildlife Response Team is directed by the International Bird Rescue Research Center (IBRRC), they were immediately mobilized to South Africa. IFAW has a retainer agreement in place with International Bird Rescue Research Center to direct oiled wildlife rehabilitation programs when a response is required.

Parliament's poached penguin eggs and the Great Guano War

The spill occurred in the middle of breeding season when penguins were on nests with eggs or chicks.
Photo: © Jon Hrusa/IFAW

Increasing Our Capabilities
as The Spill Grows

As each new report came in relating the numbers of oiled birds, plans were adjusted to accommodate what would obviously become the largest rehabilitation effort ever attempted. Jay Holcomb, Executive Director of IBRRC directed the large facility at Salt River and Karen Trendler, Executive Director of Wildcare in South Africa directed the effort at the permanent SANCCOB facility at Table View.

Within the first five days after the spill, there were over 10,000 penguins at the Salt River facility and several thousand more at the permanent facility of SANCCOB and it was obvious that a larger supervisory team was needed. At this point, IFAW issued a worldwide call to zoos and aquarium for supervisory staff, experienced in captive penguin care, to come to Cape Town to augment the management team. Zoo and aquarium staff from 59 different centers (14 different countries) came to join the International Oiled Wildlife Team. These team members were effective because of their experience, not only with the captive care of penguins, but also because of their personnel management experience which added to their ability to supervise volunteers effectively.

We requested that new team members make a minimum commitment of two to three weeks and the majority of these people obtained their own funding. The International Oiled Wildlife Team was made up of about 50 people during most of the ten weeks of the rehabilitation process. The core management team of IBRRC and IFAW staff stayed throughout the entire process.

Finding an appropriate site to house the rehab efforts

The logistical needs grew proportionally to the number of birds that came in oiled. The first requirement was to find a suitable facility for the bulk of the birds. A very large, indoor space was needed that had good ventilation to prevent the spread of disease. This was secured within the first few days after the spill. Logistical staff from IFAW and SANCCOB worked together to secure a railway warehouse in the Salt River area of Cape Town. The entire indoor facility is approximately 22,000 square meters, half of which was used for the penguin rehabilitation program.

The facility also had to have a good water supply and one that could be added to by the use of fire hydrants in the area, as well as room for massive hot water heaters. Other space requirements were for offices, phone, fax and computer lines, storage for food and supplies, media, animal food preparation, bird washing, rinsing and drying, medical care, staff and volunteer support (food, restrooms, etc.) also needed to be taken into account.

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