05 March 2012

Slow down - penguins crossing!

Here's another reason to slow down and focus when driving: wildlife crossings. Speeding kills tens of thousands of animals each year.


Here's another reason to slow down and focus when driving: wildlife crossings. Speeding kills tens of thousands of animals each year.

A classic case of the literal collison between the artificial and natural world is played out this time of year at the tip of Africa: the much-loved, world-famous members of Boulders Penguin Sanctuary in Simonstown venture inland to find nesting sites, risking death or injury as they cross the coastal road.

Last year, says Monique Ruthenberg, Table Mountain National Park (TMNP) Section Ranger at Boulders, about 25 of these endangered birds were lost to speeding motorists. This year the count has been 6 so far.

Animals most vulnerable to road deaths are either wide-ranging, like bears and wolves, or those that can't make the crossing quickly, like tortoises. Penguins are vulnerable in both respects: they're slow on land yet they can waddle fair distances on their stumpy little legs.

But why do they cross the road?

From February to May/June, some African penguin breeding pairs settle down to lay eggs in the relatively safe confines of Boulders, but others get it into their heads to leave, swim round to where the beach is unfenced, and set off purposefully inland and across the busy road to find a nesting site they deem suitable.

Even if they survive the road crossing, a residential area like Simonstown is a bad choice for a penguin nest. Cars aren't the only enemy: construction sites, dogs, cats (who attack the chicks), and unscrupulous humans looking for penguins and their eggs as food or sport decimate their numbers too. This is on top of natural predation by gennets, mongoose and kelp gulls.

Several times a week in breeding season TMNP's patient penguin monitors do a “penguin sweep”, crawling into kerbside bushes and under cars to retrieve the indignant birds (and sometimes their eggs), which are then driven back and released over the fence into the safety of Boulders.

Injured birds and chicks are taken to SANCCOB (Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds) for veterinary care and rehabilitation. Eggs the penguin monitors find are now also delivered to SANCCOB for incubation by the organisation's newly opened Chick Rearing Unit. 

And then the whole story begins all over again. The rescued penguins set off once more from Boulders, invariably back to the very nesting spots from which they were so rudely removed. The same birds often return year after year to the same site with the same mate: they are highly territorial and devotedly monogamous.

Save the penguins (and other road users): what you can do:

  • Penguins aside, always observe the speed limit, pay attention to road signs, and avoid driving in low-light conditions. Ruthenberg says the most dangerous time for penguin crossings is at dusk as we move towards winter, when people head home on the coast road. (With regards to Simonstown, pay particlular attention from Martello Road through to Rocklands Road. Watch out for the penguin crossing signs and stay under 50km/hr.)

  • If you find penguins nesting, call Boulders on 021 7862329 and one of the penguin monitors will be deployed.

  • Injured or oiled birds should also be reported to Boulders; TMNP keeps records of all fatalities and injuries to penguins in the area.

 (Olivia Rose-Innes, Health24, February 2012)


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