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Sunday, 2 July, 2000, 17:13 GMT 18:13 UK
Evacuation bid to save penguins
Penguins being led away from Dassen Island
It's the breeding season for South African penguins
By Martin Lumb in Cape Town

Conservation workers in South Africa have begun what they say will be the biggest ever evacuation of wild birds.

They plan to get up to 50,000 African penguins away from Dassen Island, 50km off Cape Town to escape an oil slick which has leaked from a sunken iron ore carrier.

The first 2,000 were taken off between dawn and midday on Sunday.

Map of South Africa showing Robben Island
This huge task follows a successful attempt to save most of the penguins on nearby Robben Island over the past week.

A helicopter and a flotilla of small boats have been commandeered in this astonishing rescue operation.

Packed two to a box the penguins are being ferried to the mainland for the long road journey round the coast of Port Elizabeth where they will be set free.

So far up to 20,000 of them have been shooed into a holding pen awaiting their ticket to safety.

Volunteers and animal welfare professionals hope to have the remainder rounded up by Tuesday.


Time is running out. Some of those already captured have not eaten for days.

Pollution caused by the shipwreck a week ago is relatively small but the international fund for animal welfare says it has created the world's worst disaster for coastal birds.

A volunteer feeds a rescued penguin chick
A volunteer feeds a rescued penguin chick
The African penguin, classified as a threatened species, is the most visible victim but cormorants and oyster catchers have also been badly affected.

Conservationists in Cape Town were quick to respond to the disaster when oil first started washing up on Robben Island.

Some 16,000 penguins from there have already been taken to the mainland and the rocky shoreline scrubbed clean.

A decision to evacuate the much bigger population on nearby Dassen Island was taken when more oil was spotted floating dangerously close.

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:

26 Jun 00 | Africa
Oil slick threatens penguins
05 Dec 98 | Americas
Penguins in peril
26 Feb 98 | Asia-Pacific
Pick up a penguin
23 May 00 | Sci/Tech
Oil harms otters 10 years on
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