BOULDERS BEACH, South Africa – Nesting in the sparkling sand, preening on the rocks and darting through the waters, the penguins on the southern tip of Africa are the ultimate crowd-pleaser. But crisis looms.
Short of food, exposed to predators and the African sun, their numbers are plummeting. But salvation may rest in a simple man-made solution: housing for penguins.
Dotting the shore of this penguin colony near the Cape of Good Hope are 200 nesting boxes, each big enough to house a happy family of parents, eggs and chicks. The experiment has already worked well on a more distant penguin island in South African waters, and wildlife rangers are eager to see whether the boxes recently installed on Boulders Beach, where tourists can watch the birds up close, will prove equally attractive.
“You look at the penguins and think they have a lovely time in sunny South Africa, but it’s a struggle,” said Monique Ruthenberg, a ranger with the Table Mountain National Park in Cape Town, where summer temperatures recently hit 104 degrees.
Park authorities installed the boxes – made of a fiberglass mix, shaped like a burrow and dug into the sand to mimic the real nests – as part of efforts to protect the dwindling populations of African penguins.
It has been a losing struggle. Numbers of the cute, curious creatures have plummeted from around 3 million in the 1930s to just 120,000 because of overfishing and pollution. Some experts fear the species will die out in as little as a decade, and are particularly alarmed at the prospect of global warming increasing the number of scorching days, raising water temperatures and altering fish migration patterns.
The Boulders Beach colony has fallen 30 percent from a peak of 3,900 birds in 2005 to 2,600, and some of the island colonies have suffered calamitous declines of 50 percent.
The African penguin, also called the jackass because of its bray, is the only one to inhabit the African continent. It has shorter feathers than the Antarctic birds because it doesn’t face such cold and is just 20 inches tall.
The Boulders Colony began in 1985 when a couple of penguins moved from a nearby island onto the beach in the naval base of Simon’s Town, decided they liked it and stayed.