Friday, October 10, 2014

The Lost African Penguin Colony of Cape Cross

The African penguin (Spheniscus demersus) once numbered in the millions.  Today its population has declined by 95% and if the trend is not reversed the species risks extinction in the next two decades.  There are about 5,000 breeding pairs left along the Namibian coast and another 21,000 in South Africa.  Industrial fishing is the main culprit.

Most of the remaining penguin colonies are on offshore islands, and I saw them off Luderitz  in Namibia when I visited there in 1991 and 1992.  At one time, however, there was a large mainland breeding colony in German Southwest Africa at Cape Cross, north of Swakopmund, as the above photograph from a book published in 1904 by Franz Seiner clearly illustrates.  Today, Cape Cross hosts a very large (and very pungent) Cape Fur seal colony, but the penguins that were once there in vast numbers have vanished.  There may still be a few that come ashore, but their last strongholds are far to the south along the Namibia Coast.  Cape Fur seals compete with the penguins for food and sometimes consider them as prey as well.

Alas, there is no historic scenario from the German-Herero war that would call for penguins on the tabletop.  Sadder still is the thought that these marvelous birds may soon have no place in the wild either.

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