African Penguin Spheniscus demersus


Justification of Red List Category
This species is classified as Endangered because it is undergoing a very rapid population decline, probably as a result of commercial fisheries and shifts in prey populations. This trend currently shows no sign of reversing, and immediate conservation action is required to prevent further declines.

Population justification

In 2015, the overall number of pairs was about 25,000 pairs, or 50,000 mature individuals. This roughly equates to about 80,000 individuals in adult plumage based on the conversion factor of 3.2 for pairs to individuals (Crawford and Boonstra 1994).

Trend justification
The population in Namibia declined from 12,162 pairs in 1978 to an estimated 5,800 pairs in 2015. The South African population declined from c.70,000 pairs in 1978/1979 (Shelton et al. 1984) to 19,300 pairs in 2015. Decreases in both countries amount to > 50% in three generations (Kemper 2015, Hagen 2016).

Distribution and population

Spheniscus demersus is endemic to southern Africa, where it breeds at 28 localities in Namibia and South Africa (Kemper et al. 2007b, Crawford et al. 2013, Kemper 2015). It has been recorded as far north as Gabon and Mozambique (Crawford et al. 2013).

In Namibia, Neglectus Islet and Penguin Island were recolonised in 2001 and 2006 respectively (Kemper et al. 2007a). In the 1980s, the species colonised Stony Point and Boulders Beach on the South African mainland and recolonised Robben Island, all in the southwest of the country (Underhill et al. 2006). A colony formed on the southern mainland at De Hoop in 2003, but disappeared after 2007. The northernmost colony at Lambert’s Bay became extinct in 2006 (Underhill et al. 2006, Crawford et al. 2011).

In 2015, the population for Namibia was estimated at 5,700 to 5,800 pairs (MFMR unpubl. data), the uncertainty in the estimate arising from a few islands that had not been counted for several years (J. Kemper pers. comm.). The most important colonies were Mercury Island: 2,646 pairs, Ichaboe Island: 488 pairs, Halifax Island: 1,092 pairs and Possession Island: 1,205 pairs (MFMR unpubl. data).

In 2015, c.19,300 pairs bred in South Africa: 7,616 pairs, Bird Island (Algoa Bay): 2,843 pairs, Stony Point: 2,533 pairs, Dassen Island: 2,140 pairs, Robben Island: 1,216 pairs, Dyer Island: 1,159 pairs and Boulders: 982 pairs (Department of Environmental Affairs unpubl. data). Just eight colonies now support 87% of the South African population. Recent declines at South African colonies north of Cape Town and increases at the Stony Point colony have been attributed to eastward movement of spawning forage fish (Crawford et al. 2011, Waller 2011, Sherley et al. 2014a).


Behaviour Adults are largely resident, but some movements occur in response to prey movements (Hockey et al. 2005). Adults generally remain within 400 km of their breeding locality, although they have been recorded up to 900 km away (Hockey et al. 2005, Roberts 2015). They breed and moult on land before taking to the sea, where they can remain for up to four months (Crawford et al. 2013, Roberts 2015). On gaining independence, juveniles disperse up to 2,000 km from their natal colonies, with those from the east heading west, and those from the west and south moving north (Sherley et al. 2013a, Sherley unpubl. data). Most birds later return to their natal colony to moult and breed (Randall et al. 1987, Sherley et al. 2014a), although the growth of some colonies has been attributed to the immigration of first-time breeders tracking food availability (Crawford 1998, Crawford et al. 2013). Adults nest colonially, but may also nest in isolation. At sea they forage singly, in pairs or sometimes co-operatively in small groups of up to 150 individuals (Wilson et al. 1986, Kemper et al. 2007b, Ryan et al. 2012). The species breeds year round with peak months varying locally (Crawford et al. 2013). In the north-western part of the range, peak laying occurs during the months of November to January; in the south-west it occurs between May and July, and in the east between April and June (Crawford et al. 2013). The average age at first breeding is thought to be 4-6 years (Whittington et al. 2005).

Habitat This species is marine and usually found within 40 km of the coast (Wilson et al. 1988, Petersen et al. 2006, Pichegru et al. 2009, 2012), coming ashore on islands or at non-contiguous areas of the mainland coast to breed, moult and rest (Hockey et al. 2005). Breeding: Breeding habitats range from flat, sandy islands with varying degrees of vegetation cover, to steep rocky islands with little vegetation (Hockey et al. 2005). African Penguins are sometimes found close to the summit of islands and may move over a kilometre inland in search of breeding sites (Hockey 2001). Non-breeding: At sea, their distribution is mainly restricted to the greater Benguela Current region (Williams 1995). They usually feed within 20 km of the colony when breeding, although at some colonies the distance is greater (Pichegru et al. 2009, Waller 2011, Ludynia et al. 2012, Pichegru et al. 2012).

Diet Adults feed predominantly on pelagic schooling fish of 50-120 mm length, with important prey including sardine Sardinops sagax, anchovy Engraulis capensis, bearded goby Sufflogobius bibarbatus and round herring Etrumeus whiteheadi (Crawford et al. 1985, Ludynia et al. 2010, Crawford et al. 2011). In some localities, cephalopods represent an important food source (Crawford et al. 1985, Connan et al. 2016). Juveniles are thought to prey on fish larvae (Wilson 1985).

Breeding site In the past, nests were usually built in burrows dug in guano or sand (Frost et al. 1976a, Shelton et al. 1984). Today, with the lack of guano at most colonies, nesting in open areas has become increasingly common (Kemper et al. 2007b, Sherley et al. 2012, Pichegru 2013). At some sites, artificial nest-burrows made from pipes and boxes sunken into the ground, and shelters shaped from dry vegetation have been regularly used by the species (Kemper et al. 2007a, Sherley et al. 2012, Pichegru 2013).


Population declines have been attributed to food shortages resulting from shifts in the distributions of prey species, competition with commercial purse-seine fisheries and environmental fluctuations (e.g. Crawford et al. 2011). A decrease in foraging effort at St Croix Island (Pichegru et al. 2010) and an increase in chick survival and chick condition at Robben Island (Sherley et al. 2015, Sherley 2016) following the establishment of 20 km no-take zones provides some support for this theory. In the early 2000s, there was an eastward shift in sardine and anchovy stocks, with the mature biomass of these species decreasing near the breeding islands north of Cape Town (Crawford et al. 2011). The abundance of these prey species is known to influence breeding success (Crawford et al. 2006, Sherley et al. 2013b), adult survival (Sherley et al. 2014a, Robinson et al. 2015), and juvenile survival (Weller et al. 2016), all of which may often be too low off South Africa’s west coast to maintain population equilibrium (Weller et al. 2014, 2016). Western Cape populations declined by 69% between 2001-2009, considered at least partly due to this climate-induced shift in fish stocks. In Namibia, where sardine and anchovy are virtually absent from the foraging ranges of breeding penguins, breeding birds feed principally on the energy-poor Bearded Goby Sufflogobius bibarbatus (Ludynia et al. 2010). Limited mortality in fishing nets may increase if gill-nets are set near colonies (Ellis et al. 1998, Crawford et al. 2017).
Human disturbance and egg-collecting were important factors in the decline of the species in the early 20th century (Frost et al. 1976b, Ellis et al. 1998, Shannon and Crawford 1999). Egg collection is now illegal, but is still recorded in some areas of the African Penguin’s range. Guano collection was historically a major cause of disturbance at many colonies and the removal of guano deprived penguins of nest-burrowing sites, causing birds to nest on open ground where they are more vulnerable to heat stress resulting in the abandonment of nests, flooding of nests by rain, and increased predation (Frost et al. 1976b, Shannon and Crawford 1999, Pichegru 2013, Kemper 2015).
Both chronic oil pollution and individual large oil spill appear to have long-term significant impacts on colonies. Past mortality from oil spills has been serious (Wolfaardt et al. 2009) and may increase if proposed development of harbours close to colonies proceeds. Most of the population is confined to areas that are near existing or planned major shipping ports (Nel and Whittington 2003, J. Kemper pers. comm.). There has been a dramatic increase in the number of birds oiled since 1990: two individual oil spills (in 1994 and 2000) killed 30,000 individuals, despite successful rehabilitation programmes (Nel and Whittington 2003, Wolfaardt et al. 2008, 2009). Moreover, breeding success on Robben Island fell to 0.23 chicks per pair in 2000, compared with an average of 0.62 ±0.19 over the other 15 years from 1989 to 2004 (Crawford et al. 2006). Rehabilitation does not necessarily prevent problems in the years after a spill. During 2001-2005, pairs involving at least one bird rehabilitated from the oil spill in 2000 achieved lower fledging success (43%) compared to unaffected pairs (61%) and those involving at least one bird affected by a previous oil spill (71%), mostly owing to higher mortality in older chicks (Barham et al. 2007). This may indicate physiological or behavioural problems that reduce the parents' ability to meet the food requirements of older chicks, perhaps owing to the toxicity of the heavy oil in the 2000 spill; the effects of prolonged captivity; or the time between oiling and washing (Barham et al. 2007).
The Cape Fur Seal Arctocephalus pusillus competes with penguins for food, displaces them from breeding sites and imposes significant mortality at some colonies (Crawford et al. 1989, Makhado et al. 2013, Weller et al. 2016, MFMR unpubl. data). Modelling of the interaction of multiple pressures on the colonies at Robben and Dyer Islands indicate that predation by Cape Fur Seals is a key driver in current population declines (Weller et al. 2016). However, this was found to be in addition to immature emigration, suggesting there may be additional bottom-up pressures impacting the viability of colonies.

The potential effects of individual storms on breeding colonies at certain sites has been highlighted (de Villiers 2002) and, as such, the increased frequency and severity of storms may cause localised losses. Sharks take some birds at sea and Kelp Gulls Larus dominicanus, dogs Canis familiaris and feral cats Felis catus prey on eggs and chicks at colonies (Underhill et al. 2006, Pichegru 2013, Weller et al. 2014, 2016). In some mainland colonies, predation by mongooses, leopards and caracals, or illegal egg collection may have notable impacts (e.g. Underhill et al. 2006).

Conservation actions

Conservation Actions Underway
CITES Appendix II. CMS Appendix II. US Endangered Species Act. Continuous monitoring of population trends is carried out at all colonies. In South Africa, most breeding localities are national parks or nature reserves. The colonies at Burghers Walk and Stony Point are in the process of receiving formal protection status. Collection of guano and eggs is prohibited within penguin colonies (Harrison et al. 1997, Currie et al. 2009). The Namibian Islands’ Marine Protected Area (NIMPA), proclaimed in 2009, protects almost 10,000 km2 of ocean in southern Namibia, including all penguin breeding localities and key foraging habitats (Currie et al. 2009, Ludynia et al. 2012). Oiled birds are rehabilitated with success (Barham et al. 2007, Wolfaardt et al. 2008). More than 80% of birds admitted for rehabilitation are returned successfully to the wild (Nel and Whittington 2003). Lost nesting habitat has been augmented using artificial nests at a number of colonies. Some designs have proved successful, increasing breeding success (Kemper et al. 2007a, Sherley et al. 2012). At other locations, the same designs have not been as successful (Pichegru 2013, Lei et al. 2014). The optimal design of artificial nests is currently being researched, with the aim to have suitable nest types for each colony available for testing during the 2017 breeding season. Maintenance of natural breeding habitat takes place where possible. Research into foraging behaviour using biologging technology (GPS and satellite-transmitters) is ongoing (Ludynia 2007, Pichegru et al. 2010, Waller 2011, Ludynia et al. 2012, Pichegru et al. 2012, Waller 2011, Sherley et al. 2013a, Steinfurth unpubl. data, Robinson unpubl. data). In South Africa, a research project into the potential positive impacts of small marine no-take zones surrounding breeding colonies is underway. Results suggest a decrease in adult foraging effort and increases in chick survival and condition, but not uniformly across the colonies involved (Pichegru et al. 2010, 2012, Hagen et al. 2014, Sherley et al. 2015, Sherley 2016). South Africa is in the process of declaring new Marine Protected Areas, including around some seabird colonies. Population reinforcement through hand rearing of abandoned chicks, or chicks removed from nests in compromised areas where survival was unlikely, added 4661 fledglings to the population between 2001 and 2015. These hand-reared fledglings survive and recruit in to breeding populations at similar rates to their wild counterparts (Sherley et al. 2014b). Attempts are made to decrease predation of eggs, chicks and grown birds (e.g. Makhado et al. 2013, Pichegru 2013). A national (South African) capture-mark-recapture programme using Passive Integrated Transponders has been implemented to monitor survival, recruitment and movements amongst colonies.

Conservation Actions Proposed
In South Africa, the African penguin Biodiversity Management plan, gazetted in 2013, is guiding the conservation actions to be implemented. The BMP includes the above actions and identifies additional ones. New actions proposed include: ensuring adequate prey is made available for penguins during the breeding and non-breeding seasons; motivating for spatial management of the pelagic fishery; investigating the feasibility and desirability of and, if deemed viable,  developing research projects and strategies to guide conservation translocations in this species, with the aim of establishing new breeding colonies and re-establishing old ones in areas of reliable prey resources (Schwitzer et al. 2013, Sherley et al. 2014b); improving the disaster response to oiling, disease and fire; establish minimum standards for rehabilitation and rehabilitation facilities; improving penguin numbers through targeted interventions at existing but declining breeding localities where the reasons for the decline can be addressed.


60-70 cm. Medium-sized, black-and-white penguin. Adult black above, white below with variable amount of black spotting on breast and belly. Broad, black breast-band and black-and-white facial pattern diagnostic. Whitish bare skin over the eyes becomes bright pinkish-red in very hot conditions. Male has deeper, more robust bill. Juvenile initially dark slaty-blue above, turning browner and, in second and third year, shows varying amount of adult facial pattern. Similar spp. Very rarely, some individuals show a double black breast-band - indicative of Magellanic Penguin S. magellanicus, which has never been positively recorded in Africa.


Text account compilers
Shutes, S., Symes, A., Taylor, J., Waller, L., Calvert, R., Ashpole, J, Ekstrom, J., Martin, R., Allinson, T, Moreno, R., Pearmain, L., Pilgrim, J.

Garcia Borboroglu , P., Pichegru, L., Barham, P., van der Spuy, S., Crawford, R.J.M., Wanless, R., Kemper, J., Makhado, A., Ludynia, K., Sherley, R., Morris, T., Simmons, R.E., Steinfurth, A., Waller, L., Underhill, L.

Recommended citation
BirdLife International (2020) Species factsheet: Spheniscus demersus. Downloaded from http://www.birdlife.org on 30/10/2020. Recommended citation for factsheets for more than one species: BirdLife International (2020) IUCN Red List for birds. Downloaded from http://www.birdlife.org on 30/10/2020.