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Lending a Helping Hand to Rescue African Penguin Chicks in South Africa

Margaret Roestorf, executive director, SANCCOB and Lana Vanagasem, manager of penguins and sea otters, Shedd Aquarium working together on-site in South Africa caring for African penguins.
Margaret Roestorf, executive director, SANCCOB and Lana Vanagasem, manager of penguins and sea otters, Shedd Aquarium working together on-site in South Africa caring for African penguins.

Guest Blog by Tim Binder, VP of Collection Planning at Shedd Aquarium

As a nationally recognized leader in rescue and rehabilitation work, Shedd Aquarium has responded to animals in need for over two decades. Whether it’s providing around-the-clock care for Cayucos, one of our rescued sea otter pups, or serving as an active responder in times of environmental disaster, Shedd’s extraordinary team of animal health experts have worked together with partners across the globe to support one another in the best interest of the animals.

Up-close look at a penguin chick at SANCCOB.
Up-close look at a penguin chick at SANCCOB. Photo credit: Francois Louw

We care for more than 32,500 animals at Shedd, but as we continue to expand our role in helping animals in need, we have been developing partnerships with organizations that respond to seasonally predictable animal stranding events.  One of these relationships is with Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB), a leading marine-orientated non-profit organization that has treated more than 90,000 oiled, ill, injured or abandoned African penguins and other threatened seabirds since being established in 1968.

During this particular time of year, hundreds of African penguin chicks are abandoned or otherwise do not thrive in their nests. In response to an unusually high number of African penguin (Spheniscus demersus) strandings this season, Shedd recently worked with the SANCCOB to assist in the rehabilitation of more than 500 endangered birds.

As an international leader in animal care and conservation, Shedd was able to mobilize quickly and provide assistance to respond to the crisis. In January, two members of the marine mammal care team headed out to Cape Town, South Africa to lend their expertise and helping hands to some of the most extreme cases in the SANCCOB’s Intensive Care Unit.

Caring for a few penguin chicks
Caring for a few penguin chicks, ensuring they are healthy to swim on their own.

Many of the stranded penguins had health issues including foot problems, lacerations, broken wings, malaria or other illness. They needed all the help they could get and our team was able to provide the necessary care so they can hopefully be released back into the wild. While in South Africa, our team worked hand-in-hand with SANCCOB to care for the penguin chicks, helping to nurse them back to health until they had normal blood values, good feather condition and were healthy enough to swim long distances.

Classified as endangered on the Red List from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), this vulnerable water bird is in rapid decline which could lead to extinction for the species in as soon as 15 years.  African penguins are found ill, oiled or injured each year as a result of human impact, including oil spills, habitat degradation and climate change. Food shortages resulting from large catches of fish by commercial fisheries and environmental fluctuations also remain a major threat to the population.

Lana Vanagasem, manager of penguins and sea otters, Shedd Aquarium feeding a penguin chick
Lana Vanagasem, manager of penguins and sea otters, Shedd Aquarium feeding a penguin chick

This collaboration is essential in helping to save an endangered species. Working together, we are able to get one step closer to achieving the ultimate goal – to stabilize the population of the wild African penguins.

Back at home, Shedd is involved in a successful penguin breeding program and contributes to several penguin rescue efforts with expertise and knowledge gained at the aquarium. In 2001, Shedd joined an international effort to rehabilitate more than 20,000 African penguins from a large colony of endangered penguins that were oiled when a cargo ship sank off the coast of South Africa. Members of the aquarium’s penguin care team helped to rehabilitate and release thousands of birds during a three-week trip to Cape Town.

Because of Shedd’s expertise, the aquarium was approached to assist in many efforts including beluga calf rescue efforts in Canada and Alaska, oil spill responses in the Gulf of Mexico and Alaska, and endangered coral recovery in Florida.  We also act as a partner and advisor to government agencies such as the National Marine Fisheries Service and  U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, other conservation organizations and fellow zoos and aquariums around the world that need advice about relocating orphaned or injured wildlife.

By working together in strategic and collaborative ways – rescuing penguins in South Africa or providing care for animals in our own backyard – we will be able to collectively achieve our ultimate vision of engaging people and saving species – and hopefully inspire people to make a difference that will preserve and protect animals and habitats for future generations to come.

Penguin Chicks release back into the wild
Healthy African penguin chicks released back into the wild.

With more than 35 years of experience, Tim Binder supervises the Fishes division and registrar’s office as Vice President of Collection Planning at the John G. Shedd Aquarium