07 March 2005

Danger is a waddle away for Boulders penguins

Simon's Town's vulnerable African penguins at Boulders Beach were being knocked down by speeding motorists faster than pins in a busy bowling alley.

But now penguin "catchers", introduced to stop the spiralling death toll, have proved extremely effective by returning the wandering birds to the safe confines of the Boulders Coastal Park.

Penguin monitors Thembisile Gantsho and Unathi Nongogo of the Table Mountain National Park have been run off their feet by the breeding birds, determined to find that perfect spot to nest.

Gantsho said they had found the birds in bushes, down drains, in gardens and under cars.

"Sometimes we find them inside people's houses and often they tend to go back to a place they like no matter how many times we remove them."

The pair net the errant birds, pop them into cardboard boxes and return them to the safety of the park. He said now, in breeding season, the birds run all over the place.

"We catch about nine or 10 each day."

Sally Grierson of the Boulders Beach Lodge said last year three or four penguins died on the road every week.

"This year only about three have been killed the entire season," she said.

Penguins are extremely determined animals and when they find a breeding spot to their liking it is often hard to budge them. But nesting outside the coastal park can be extremely dangerous because they have to cross busy Main Road in Simon's Town every time they feed.

Grierson, who is also the organiser of the annual Simon's Town Penguin Festival, said a penguin gave birth outside a room at the lodge last year on Valentine's Day.

"And this year she was back. But now with the help of the monitors most of the birds are being contained within the park, although there is still a family on the golf course."

She said penguins were extremely vulnerable with Boulders having one of the world's only thriving colonies of African penguins. The population has grown to about 4 000 birds from just two breeding pairs in 1982.

"But although the colony hasn't decreased in recent years, it hasn't increased either."

Grierson said African Penguins were monogamous with the same pair usually returning to the same colony, and often the same nest site each year.

She said that like most animals, penguins were most at threat from humans who encroached on their habitat. The birds were also extremely vulnerable to the ever-present threat of oil spills which killed large numbers of birds.

"But we were also intrigued to read about the gay penguins in Germany which could also explain declining numbers," Grierson said referring to recent reports of horrified bosses of a German zoo finding that three of their five penguin pairs were homosexual and had even gone as far as adopting rocks which they protected like eggs.

The zoo director hurriedly imported four Swedish females to try to "cure" the males of their homosexuality but the boys apparently snubbed the girls.

Grierson said she had also since heard of a pair of male African penguins called Wendell and Cass who had been living in a New York zoo and had been inseparable for 15 years.

"They are apparently well known for their neat and tidy nest."

She said they had not noted any homosexual tendencies with the Boulders penguins.

"But it's actually really hard to tell the males and females apart so we probably wouldn't notice either way."


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