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Wednesday, 5 July, 2000, 13:35 GMT 14:35 UK
Race to save penguin chicks
Penguins on Dassen Island
The largest evacuation of wild birds ever undertaken
Conservation workers in South Africa are racing to save thousands of penguin chicks from an oil slick in what is seen as the largest operation of this kind ever undertaken.

The evacuation on Dassen Island off Cape Town follows a successful attempt to save most of the penguins on nearby Robben Island over the past week.

More than 10,000 oil-soaked adult penguins have already been rescued on Dassen Island, where oil from the stricken Panama-registered ore carrier Treasure has started washing ashore.

The penguins are shipped ashore in ventilated cardboard boxes
The operation is estimated to cost up to 40 million rand ($5.8m).

A helicopter and a flotilla of small boats have been commandeered for the rescue operation.

Dassen Island is home to about one-fifth of the world's flightless Jackass penguins, which are also known as African penguins. They were named "jackass" because they make a noise like the sound of a donkey braying.

Feeding and scrubbing

The chicks taken from their nests off Dassen Island are being fed by volunteers at a dock warehouse, because they would not survive in their normal feeding grounds.

Oil-coated birds are being treated at rehabilitation centres in Cape Town.

The washing of an oil-soaked penguin takes up to 30 minutes, using strong detergents and a toothbrush.

Handler with chick
Struggling chicks have to be dragged from their nests
Cape Nature Conservation scientist Tony Williams said there could be up to 15,000 fledgling penguin chicks on Dassen Island.

"As soon as we get the all-clear we will start to release the chicks. I expect it to happen from the middle of next week," Mr Williams said.

The Panamanian-registered Treasure sank nearly two weeks ago while being towed out to sea, spilling at least 500 tonnes of oil.

Cape Nature spokeswoman Aletta Jordaan said the crisis was the worst to hit the colony on Dassen Island.

Threatened species

The only nesting penguins found on the African continent, Jackass penguins are considered a "threatened", but not endangered, species.

The current population of around 160,000 birds is down from 1.2 million in the early 1920s.

Map of South Africa showing Robben Island
Apart from pollution, the major threat to the penguins is competition for food with humans. The birds eat pilchards and anchovies, which are heavily fished in the area.

The penguin is the most visible victim of the oil, but cormorants and oyster catchers have also been badly affected.

The penguins are expected to swim home to the islands within two weeks, when it is hoped the clean-up operation will be complete.

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See also:

02 Jul 00 | Africa
Evacuation bid to save penguins
26 Jun 00 | Africa
Oil slick threatens penguins
05 Dec 98 | Americas
Penguins in peril
26 Feb 98 | Asia-Pacific
Pick up a penguin
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