An exciting new project plans to fit young orphaned African penguins that were raised by humans with satellite tracking transmitters. The goal is to help the endangered birds establish safe breeding colonies.
On Friday researchers in South Africa outfitted a 10-week-old African penguin named Richie with a one-ounce transmitter taped and glued to his wing. Richie will have one week to get used to swimming with the device in a pool and will then be released in the ocean at the southern tip of Africa. The transmitter will track his journey.
The Associated Press reported there will be a total of five penguins in the project. Another penguin named Lucy has already been released.
Tourists from around the world come to see the African penguin colony near Cape Town, but in recent years the number of birds has sharply decreased. In the early 1900′s there were 4 million penguins, but now the population is estimated at only 60,000.
Venessa Strauss of the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds told the AP that humans are responsible for the reduction.
People stripped the land where the penguins nested and created an area that was exposed to predators and the strong sun. Oil spills in the area further threatened the penguins and commercial fishermen have depleted the anchovies and sardines the birds eat.
The five chicks that will be used in the study were raised by Strauss’s foundation. They were abandoned by their parents or orphaned as a result of a recent oil spill.
The scientists have done their best to keep the penguins wild and untamed.
Lucy, who was the first penguin released was described by Strauss as, “…wild as anything. She bites. She’s quite a meanie.”
According to Strauss the birds need to be strong for their journey. In the wild their parents would have stopped feeding them after two to four months. They would have been expected to find food for themselves after that.
Strauss’s penguins are heartier animals because they have been better fed by their human caregivers. The chicks have been tested for their ability to swim, but other than that they have been raised as wild birds.
The tracking system Lucy is wearing is already giving the researchers interesting data. Lucy has averaged 28 miles of swimming each day since her release. This fact was previously unknown to the scientists.
Researchers hope the transmitters will stay attached to the penguins for several months so they can learn more about the birds’ behavior and help locate a suitable breeding area that will be protected from predators and close to food sources. The penguins will breed from ages 2 to 6.
Hope for the success of the African penguin study is strong. The Southern African Foundation patterned their research after other successful conservation projects. They cited how the World Wildlife Fund’s Northern Great Plains program brought back the black-footed ferrets from 18 animals to about 1,000.
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