“Impossible” rescue saves the penguins of Robben and Dassen islands

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, October 2000:

CAPE TOWN, South Africa – –
Christina Pretorius of the South African
National Foundation for the Conservation of
Coastal Birds on August 23 quietly closed the
former railway warehouse in Salt River that
for two month was a makeshift hospital for
22,000 oil-soaked penguins, who were aided
by 40,000 volunteers working in teams under
102 experts flown in from around the world.
More than 17,000 now clean and
healthy penguins had already been released to
follow 20,000 uncontaminated penguins home.
Another 2,600 penguins were still in special
care at other locations.
“If we can move 10,000 birds off in
three days, we’ve done as much as we can
do,” Western Cape Nature Conservation penguin
expert told Mike Cohen of Associated
Press back on July 3, 10 days after the
Panamanian bulk ore carrier Treasure sank
and spilled 1,300 tons of oil into the water
surrounding Robben and Dassen Islands.

Robben Island, the former penal
colony where Nelson Mandala spent more than
20 years, and Dassen Island, nearby, are
where about 55,000 of African penguins
nest––40% of the total population. The spill
coincided with the peak of breeding season.
Then the International Fund for
Animal Welfare put up the money to fund a
miracle. The New England Aquarium,
Singapore Zoo, and other conservation institutions
sent their best people. Ordinary South
Africans took the time to lend a hand.
Forty-six thousand penguins in all
were removed from Robben and Dassen
Islands. Having nowhere to put the 20,000
clean penguins, the rescuers trucked them 750
miles up the western coast of South Africa to
Port Elisabeth and let them go to swim back by
instinct. The rescuers gambled that the oil
could be all dispersed before the penguins got
home. Much of the world followed three
radio-collared penguins, dubbed Peter, Percy,
and Pamela, as their progress was continuously
tracked at a web site. Penguin-hating squid
fishers blasted at them with shotguns as they
rounded Cape Recife, but 19 days later Peter
made it home safely, followed a few days
later by Percy and a week later by Pamela
––and the oil was gone.
The first of 800 rescued penguin
chicks had already been returned to the
islands. The rescuers also saved nine rare
adult bank cormorants and 20 of their chicks.
The penguin rescue inspired efforts
to save sea turtle nests from oil spills that hit
beaches near Karachi, Pakistan, on July 9,
and hit John U. Lloyd State Park in southern
Florida exactly one month later.

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