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Friday, 7 July, 2000, 18:23 GMT 19:23 UK
Oiled penguins head for home
penguins on shore
A group of oiled birds await rescue
By environment correspondent Alex Kirby

The number of penguins being cared for by conservationists in South Africa has now reached 23,000.

The birds have been evacuated from Dassen Island, off Cape Town, and from nearby Robben Island.

The operation to save the penguins began after oil leaked from the Panama-registered ore carrier Treasure, which sank on 23 June.

And the first birds released from the rescue centres are swimming strongly back to their home islands.

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.

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

Their numbers have fallen from about 1.5m breeding adults a century ago to about 150,000 today.

Expensive

Some of the birds taken from the islands have been coated in oil, but many are clean. They have been evacuated to prevent them becoming polluted.

They are being cared for by Sanccob, the South African National Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds. Most of the penguins are being looked after at two centres near Cape Town.


solitary oiled penguin
One bedraggled survivor
They get through about 10 tonnes of fish every day, and the foundation estimates that each bird will cost about 2,000 rand (US $290) to rehabilitate - a total of more than R40m ($5,800,000).

The foundation hopes that about 200 birds will be ready for release by early next week. It plans to set them free near Port Elizabeth, 800 km (500 miles) from Cape Town, and let them swim home.

This should allow time for the oil to disperse, so that when the penguins reach the islands they will be in no danger.

Homeward bound

Three penguins are already blazing a trail along the homeward route. Fitted with satellite transmitters so their progress can be monitored, they have swum about a hundred miles westwards, stopping to feed every now and then.

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 penguins are the most visible victims of the oil, but cormorants and oyster catchers have also been badly affected.

Images by L G Underhill, University of Cape Town Avian Demography Unit

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See also:

05 Jul 00 | Africa
Race to save penguin chicks
02 Jul 00 | Africa
Evacuation bid to save penguins
26 Jun 00 | Africa
Oil slick threatens penguins
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