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Helping save 20,000 oiled penguins in Cape Town, South Africa

Some of the 20,000 oiled African penguins on Robben Island before being captured. Photo: Jon 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 worldwide population of African penguins is numbered at less than 180,000 and dwindling. The ship spilled over 1,300 tons of bunker oil, which immediately oiled thousands of penguins on and around the islands.

The International Bird Rescue Research Center response team was immediately mobilized by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) who helped organize the rehabilitation effort of over 20,000 oiled penguins.

In addition to the rehabilitation program, there was a massive pre-emptive capture program initiated on the islands and it was successful in relocating over 19,500 non-oiled penguins. At this time, over 90% of the oiled birds have been rehabilitated and released.

While the number of oiled birds was staggering, the IBRRC response team was experienced with large scale spills effecting penguins, as they have responded to three previous spills in Cape Town, the largest of which was the Apollo Sea spill.

In 1994, six years previous to the Treasure spill, almost 10,000 African penguins were oiled from the sinking of the Apollo Sea bulk ore carrier. Of those oiled penguins, over 4,700 were rehabilitated and released. Immediately after the Apollo Sea spill, local trustees in Cape Town began a monitoring program on the nearby breeding islands of Robben and Dassen. Biologists have spent the last six years monitoring these breeding colonies and have found that seventy-five percent of the rehabilitated birds have been seen on the island and that the birds were breeding at normal mortality rates three years post spill.

Parliament's poached penguin eggs and the Great Guano War

While these study results are very exciting, the International Bird Rescue Research Center continues to research the effects of oil on wildlife in an effort to provide the best achievable care for oiled animals. Our protocols have advanced greatly since 1994, as research has shown new and better ways to provide care to oiled animals. With new advancements in the field, there is strong evidence that a much higher percentage of the oiled penguins from the Treasure spill will survive to breed again.

Latest press release on the Treasure spill

In-depth IBRRC report on the spill

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