South Africa's oil-soaked penguins get a scrubbing

It will be at least two months before all the birds are returned to the wild.

In a dilapidated rail-yard warehouse near this city's bustling port are the survivors of South Africa's largest man-made ecological disaster - 19,000 penguins.

The black, white, and pink knee-high birds have lived in 300 plastic kiddie pools since June 23, when a sinking ship released more than 400 tons of oil into waters home to one-third of all the world's remaining wild African penguins.

Environmentalists quickly scooped up more than 40,000 of the threatened birds and began intensive care. Those tainted by the oil, which removes a bird's waterproofing and eventually leads to death, were packed off to the warehouse for cleaning.

"This rehabilitation effort is unprecedented," said Ken Brewer a wildlife rehabilitation specialist from Seattle with the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW).

In the most ambitious wildlife rescue operation ever attempted, each day about 1,000 volunteers and experts from around the world join the effort to keep the penguins alive.

With assembly-line efficiency, teams feed the penguins more than 6 tons of fish a day. They force feed each oil-soaked bird vitamin-infused fish, activated charcoal, and the equivalent of penguin Gatorade to stabilize the birds.

Later they spray their uncooperative patients with vegetable oil to loosen the oil residue. Then, once the bird has gained back its strength, they administer what is best described as a Maytag wash cycle: two rubber-clad volunteers armed with dishwashing detergent scrub, rinse, and scrub again each bird for about an hour.

After the washing, and two weeks of daily regular exercise, the penguins are ready for freedom.

So far, more than 15,000 untainted penguins have been released and another 6,800 washed penguins are almost ready to swim home, to the windswept Dassen and Robben Islands less than five miles offshore. Fewer than 400 birds in the warehouse and one dozen in the wild have died.

Still, "the prognosis is not good," says Williams. "The forecast is that they'll go into extinction by the middle of this century."

The 19,000 in kiddie pools waiting for their natural water repellency to return face another hazard - disease. Experts fear the close quarters, up to 100 penguins to a pool, could spark an epidemic of avian malaria.

The penguins entered this century numbering 3 million. There are now fewer than 150,000 of the creatures.

The short-term threats to the penguin's survival include the remaining oil in the ship's hold. Officials initially estimated that 400 tons of oil leaked from the ship. A salvage crew has pumped out another 150 tons. It is unclear if the unaccounted-for 750 tons remain trapped on board the ship or have already escaped into the rough sea.

"We're hoping they can track down the remaining oil," said Simon Pope a spokesman for IFAW. "Once we release the penguins, we don't want them back here in three weeks because of another oil spill."

Long-term threats include human appetites both for penguin eggs and the penguin's preferred food, fish, - pressures which, over the past century, have erased entire penguin colonies from the map.

More recently, the flightless birds, also called jackass penguins because of their donkey-like bray, have been decimated by oil spill after oil spill.

"A huge amount of oil shipping comes through here," Mr. Pope said. "This is sort of the fast lane of a highway."

Six years ago, a slick in the same area affected 10,000. Last December a few hundred were sickened by a much smaller discharge. In the past 30 years a total of 40,000 oil-soaked penguins have been treated by the South African National Foundation of the Conservation of Coastal Birds.

The latest incident occurred last month as a Panamanian-registered ship, the Treasure, struggled towards the Cape of Good Hope carrying 130,000 tons of iron ore and 1,300 tons of fuel oil for its journey from China to Brazil. A 30-by-50-foot hole below the water line, caused by either stress or age, sank the huge ship just off shore.

The oil that bubbled to the surface coated the choppy seawater with a rainbow sheen and the penguins with a black film. One dead oil-soaked seal has also washed ashore, and slick Bank Cormorants, a local seabird, have been spotted.

Ornithologists from around the world, including a number from US zoos, have flown in to tackle this and other challenges to the bird's survival.

The environmentalists working on the cleanup plan to lobby the government for tighter controls, such as the US Environmental Protection Agency's "polluters pay" policy, or a law in California, which taxes the transport of oil to fund the cleanups.

"Undoubtedly, this [most recent spill] has brought the government's attention to the problem," said Tony Williams, a senior scientist with the Western Cape Nature Conservation Board, which advises the provincial government on environmental issues. "We hope to use this incident to pressure the government to develop a policy similar to those found in the United States."

"You have to focus on the positive," said Christine Bertz, a bird keeper at the Memphis Zoo, who will spend most of the next week dodging penguin nips in the warehouse.

"The key is that we're treating the symptoms of the problem here," she said. "We're saving the birds. We need next to address the cause."

The government has so far shown little interest in developing a policy to address the problem of recurring oil spills on Africa's southernmost tip. Instead it has relied on the International Maritime Organization's laws, which regulate shipping worldwide to protect its environmental resources. Dissatisfied environmentalists plan a conference on the issue in the coming months.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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