How do you rehabilitate hundreds of oiled penguins to release back into the wild? It only takes an hour to wash and rinse an oily African penguin (Spheniscus demersus), but it takes nearly four weeks to rehabilitate the bird for release back into the wild.
The five-stage process developed by the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB) begins with search and recovery. But successful rehabilitation and release depends on dedicated trained personnel with plenty of energy, rubber gloves, soapy-water and most importantly the expertise and knowledge accumulated over years of experience dealing with wildlife crises at the national and international level. Responding to the most recent oil spill from the SELI 1 wreck just offshore from Cape Town, SOS Save Our Species funded SANCCOB to implement emergency measures to help save one of the African penguin's most threatened colonies.
Commenting on the process, Venessa Strauss, SANCCOB Director of Conservation explains, “SANCCOB’s work to rehabilitate and release oiled seabirds, especially penguins, are highly successful, but with the recent reclassification of the penguins as endangered, we have an obligation to ensure that everything possible is done to reduce the risk of major oiling catastrophes and further ensure that we remain vigilant in the event of a spill”.
1) Search and Recovery
When seabirds such as penguins are exposed to oil they lose their natural waterproofing, which means they are no longer able to withstand the cold ocean, fish or hydrate themselves. Also, if the oil is ingested it can cause organ failure and severe damage to their internal system. Thus rapid response is essential. Teams of trained personnel search breeding colonies and beaches for oiled birds while also monitoring nesting sites for signs of abandoned chicks. Birds are collected by hand or shepherded into boxes by personnel. In the case of the most recent oil spill from the wreck of the SELI 1 in the vicinity of Robben Island, South Africa, rescued birds were removed using specially designed SANCCOB transport boxes by ferry to the mainland and then by road to the rehabilitation centre up the coast. Due to the proximity of Cape Town in this incident, the entire journey took little over an hour which facilitated rescue operations in comparison to other more remote crises.
Birds admitted to the centre are usually dehydrated, stressed and weakened. Human interaction and the centre’s surroundings are very foreign to them but team members refrain from petting or taming the birds in any way. Stressed penguins can bite as a defence mechanism and team members must be trained in handling the birds for the safety of both parties. After an initial assessment, the penguins are individually identified with a plastic tag on their flipper. They are then weighed, given a hydrating electrolyte solution, evaluated for any other medical issues before being sorted according to their general health status. Over the following two to three days, team members re-hydrate the birds three times daily, feeding them twice daily while they are allowed to swim in special pools for short periods. Chicks admitted to the SANCCOB facility are usually in an emaciated state because their parents were not able to feed them. Such chicks are placed on an intense regime of fish formula, vitamins and fish to ensure they gain weight appropriately for their age.
Cleaning or ‘de-oiling’ occurs only when the penguins are stabilised and deemed strong enough to be washed by a veterinary team. It is a thorough but delicate process beginning with the application of a solution that breaks down the oil before the birds are washed in a warm soapy solution. Rinsing is critical because this step removes all the soap from the penguin’s feathers, helping the birds regain their natural waterproofing. The entire washing and rinsing process takes between one and two hours before the birds are placed in drying pens under infra-red heat lamps that speed up the drying process.
During the subsequent 2-3 weeks, the penguins continue on a regime of hydration, feeding and swimming as they regain their natural fitness and waterproofing. Meanwhile the veterinary team evaluates individuals’ blood, weight and feather conditions on a weekly basis to ensure that all the penguins are on track for release.
To be released back into the wild the penguins must be fully waterproofed, free of infections and have attained a minimum weight. Furthermore, environmental conditions are evaluated before the penguins are released back into the wild to ensure that the risk of immediate re-oiling has been removed from their habitat. Chicks that matured into juvenile birds are generally released into one of the breeding colonies along the coast while breeding adult birds are either released from a mainland beach or directly back into the breeding colony.