Project Penguin

One of the penguin chicks at Bristol Zoo Gardens

Bird keepers at Bristol Zoo Gardens are pleased to welcome three tiny penguin chicks. The African penguin chicks are being hand-reared by keepers at the Zoo who have given them a surrogate mum, a penguin soft toy, to cuddle up to for warmth and comfort.

The youngsters are between two and four weeks old and need to be fed four times a day with small pieces of fish and fish formula packed with extra vitamins. The youngsters will even go home with their keeper on Christmas day so they can continue to be fed throughout the day.

Bristol Zoo’s curator of birds, Nigel Simpson, said: “The chicks like to have something to sleep next to and this penguin soft toy replicates the natural feeling on their mother. A fleece or feather duster also works well.”

Nigel added: “Caring for four penguin chicks is quite demanding, which is why a keeper will take them home for Christmas so they can continue to be fed at regular intervals.”

The chicks can be seen in the Zoo’s specialist incubation room where they will live until they are able to feed themselves at six to eight-weeks-old. They will then be moved into a ‘creche’ area within the Zoo’s penguin enclosure. There they will learn to swim and fend for themselves before joining the adult penguin group.

The chicks have been reared from eggs as part of a study into the optimum incubation conditions for penguin eggs. This is part of Bristol Zoo’s conservation project to help save endangered African penguins from extinction, as Nigel Simpson explains: “We are leading a chick bolstering project in South Africa where penguin numbers are in sharp decline. In future we may need to call on Zoos to send penguin eggs to South Africa to bolster wild populations on the brink of extinction.

“It is therefore vital that we know exactly how to best care for the penguin eggs during the delicate translocation from England to South Africa, to give the chicks the best chance of growing into healthy adults that are able to help re-populate diminishing penguin numbers in the wild.”

The chick bolstering project, nicknamed Project Penguin, is being run by Bristol Zoo Gardens in partnership with SANCCOB, the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), Robben Island Museum, the University of Cape Town’s Animal Demography Unit, CapeNature and Marine and Coastal Management (an arm of the South African government).

The three chicks have been named Robben, Dyer, and Dassen, after islands off South Africa’s Western Cape – home to African penguin colonies.

African penguin numbers are in rapid decline with an estimated 50 per cent decrease in the population over the past four years. The birds are currently listed as ‘Vulnerable’ on the IUCN red list, but will soon be upgraded to ‘Endangered’. The major threat to the survival of the species is thought be a lack of food due to over fishing and movement of fish stocks away from the remaining nesting beaches due to factors including global warming.

A penguin chick with soft toy

Project Penguin

The penguin project is a partnership between the Bristol Conservation and Science Foundation (BCSF), the Dyer Island Conservation Trust, the International Fund for Animal Welfare, the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism, Branch: Marine and Coastal Management (Government of RSA), the Avian Demographic Unit (University of Cape Town) and the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB).

The African penguin is declining rapidly in South Africa and Namibia, with an estimated loss of 50 per cent of the total population over the last four years. The population size of the African Penguins is currently at its lowest recorded level. There is now thought to be less than 27,000 breeding pairs of African penguins, distributed in 27 colonies, but only a handful of these colonies seem to be viable in the long term.

The key factors responsible for the population decline are likely to be shortages of food; poor breeding habitat; documented predation by Cape Fur Seals on adult and juvenile penguins offshore of colonies; oil pollution and documented predation by cats on Robben Island. Unless drastic action is taken there is substantial risk that this species could become extinct.

Dyer Island, situated about eight kilometres offshore from Gansbaai in the Western Cape, is an important breeding colony for about 4, 000 African penguins.

Bristol Zoo Gardens

The Zoo is an Education and Conservation Charity and relies on the income from visitors to support its work. The Zoo is involved with over one hundred co-ordinated breeding programmes for threatened wildlife species. It employs 140 full and part-time staff to care for the animals and run a successful visitor attraction to support its conservation and education work.

Bristol Zoo supports – through finance and skill sharing – over 10 projects in the UK and abroad that conserve and protect some of the world’s most endangered species. Bristol Zoo is a member of the British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums. BIAZA represents over 90 member collections and promotes the values of good zoos and aquariums.

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