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2000: Record-breaking penguin rescue

Conservationists in South Africa are carrying out the biggest ever airlift of wild birds.

Over 18,000 Jackass penguins have now been moved to safety as an oil slick threatens their breeding ground on Dassen Island, 50 miles north of Cape Town.

The rescue operation began last week when the Panamanian tanker, Treasure, sank off the Cape of Good Hope with around 14,000 tonnes of oil on board.

Jackass penguins - so called because they sound like braying donkeys - are the only nesting penguins in Africa and they are classed as a "threatened species".

This spill is particularly dangerous because it is the middle of the mating season and a third of the entire Jackass breed live in the affected area.

Major operation

Dozens of volunteers are helping the rescue operation co-ordinated by the South African National Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (Sanccob).

Sanccob estimates that the cost of evacuating the whole population of 55,000 penguins will be 40m Rand (3.4m). The holding centres are already getting through 10 tonnes of fish per day.

The birds - also known as African penguins - are being looked after in two cleaning centres near Cape Town.

Each bird takes half an hour to clean by hand with a toothbrush in strong detergent before they have a test swim in specially made tanks.

Conservationists plan to release the penguins 100 miles up the coast near Port Elizabeth, so that the oil will have dispersed by the time they reach their natural habitat.

Oil is harmful because it interferes with feathers' natural waterproofing and leaves the penguins exposed to cold and unable to swim for food for themselves and their young.

In Context
By August 23,000 oiled birds had been caught and cleaned and another 17,000 removed from the affected area. The last bird was returned to the wild in October.

Thousands of South African volunteers and about 100 wildlife experts from across the world worked 16 hour days to complete targets of 500 birds per day.

It is estimated that their efforts cost $14m (9.73m), but without it Jackass penguins would have died out by 2010.

In 1994 there was a similar incident in the same area, when 10,000 penguins were rescued after the Apollo tanker sank spilling 500 tonnes of oil.

Only half of those rescued penguins survived compared with a survival rate of 95% on this occasion.


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