BALTIMORE, Md. (WHTM) – The second Saturday in October is International African Penguin Awareness Day. As the name suggests, this species lives on the coasts of Africa – and they’re critically endangered, mostly due to human activity.
The Maryland Zoo in Baltimore is helping to keep the species going. We met up with Collection Specialist Maria Luongo at the Zoo’s “Penguin Coast” exhibit. She filled us in on the penguins, the problems they’re facing, and what the zoo is doing to help conserve the species. So without further ado, we will turn the rest of this article over to Maria.
“We currently have 108 African penguins in our exhibit right here.”
“Typically when people think of penguins, they think of the ice, the snow, the frigid cold. But African penguins come from a warm weather climate, a temperate climate zone like we have here in Baltimore. And that’s why we can have this fabulous outdoor exhibit.”
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“Their native range falls between South Africa in Namibia, and also the surrounding islands around that region.
“We use a tag system to identify them. Every individual has their own unique color combination on their wing, and that’s how we can quickly identify that individual in our colony.
“Every one of our individuals in our colony has their own personality. So we have some that are very curious towards us, that would like to be around us. We have some that don’t even care about us. Ignore us only for food. So they have big personalities. And that’s something that’s, I think, very endearing to people.
“Currently, African penguins in the wild are listed as endangered. At the turn of the 20th century, a good estimate was around 3 to 4 million African penguins. Right now, we’re sitting at about 25,000 active breeding pairs. So their numbers have dropped dramatically, almost 98% at this time.
“They faced many different threats. A lot of the time it involved scraping guano off of these islands where they’re native from. Guano is essentially just penguin poop. Farmers found out that it was a great fertilizer.
“So they essentially scraped these islands clean of their guano, which destroyed their nesting sites. Also, centuries ago, African penguins were actually a delicacy, especially their eggs. So a lot of these eggs were collected over time, which of course, dwindled their numbers. And then currently today, they’re facing many different problems. So things like climate change also habitat loss as well. And one of the biggest ones is overfishing and oil spills.
“Unfortunately, we are taking way too much of their food source and not leaving enough for the penguins, so they have to swim further in longer distances out to sea to find their food. Their main staple diet is sardines and anchovies, which of course are very popular all around the globe. And unfortunately, down along South Africa is a very large fishing industry in that region.
“If the trend continues, scientists believe that they will be functionally extinct in the wild in 2026.
“We are part of a large species survival plan for African penguins.
“We are essentially the number one breeder of African Penguins in North America. We have the largest colony, and we’re number two in the world.
“We have all the genetic information of every African penguin in all zoos across America, and they pair up penguins based on their genetic diversity. So we look at historic family trees and base up these pairings based on that genetic diversity. Essentially we get recommendations from the species survival plan and we breed our penguins based on their genetic diversity to have a good, healthy genetic population within human care.
“Unfortunately, at this time, we cannot return African penguins to the wild. So they’re still facing the same threat. If we started to release these penguins into the wild, they would face the same perils as their wild counterparts. So essentially right now, we’re breeding to have a healthy genetic population, to start breeding from when the time comes that we can start releasing penguins back into the wild.”