Written by Braden Ingram 

International African Penguin Awareness Day is a global event that aims to raise awareness about the plight of African penguins, the only penguin species that lives on the African continent. These charismatic birds are facing multiple challenges due to overfishing, habitat loss, pollution and climate change. To celebrate this day, Nature Connect interviewed some of our friends – the penguin rangers at the City of Cape Town’s and SANCCOB’s Burgher’s Walk colony in Simon’s Town.

These dedicated conservationists work tirelessly to protect and monitor the penguins in their natural habitat, as well as rescue and rehabilitate injured or abandoned birds. In this interview, we will learn more about the challenges and rewards of being a penguin ranger, as well as the importance of these endangered species for the marine ecosystem and   

What made you want to become a penguin ranger and how long have you been doing it for?

I have always wanted to work with animals, and I found Nature Conservation as something to study, not knowing how much it would entail, but from my first lecture I fell in love with the course and after completing my studies and looking for work opportunities, this position fell into my lap, and I quickly grabbed at it! I have been a penguin ranger for four years now and I absolutely love it! – Mikaela Slier

What do you love about being a penguin ranger?

It’s a tie between observing penguin behaviour and answering tourists’ questions. Penguins are such interesting characters! And at Simons Town, we have a wonderful opportunity to further the cause of conservation and environmental education because we have this iconic species coming face to face with a (mostly) enthralled and large international audience’ – Vardaman Hahndiek

As a penguin ranger you are constantly learning something new, it can be about penguins or any other seabirds, about the environment either terrestrial or aquatic, it could be about maintenance or just about people that come to see the penguins. There is never a dull moment – Philile Duze

What is the most memorable moment you have had as a penguin ranger?

The most memorable moment was the first time I had to rescue an injured penguin from the beach. I had to crawl and move slowly with a long tool in my hand. I eventually caught the bird, and it was safely sent to the seabird rehabilitation centre for treatment – Angelo Hufke

What do you see for the future of penguin conservation? What, if anything, would you like to see more of?

Ideally a larger task force of dedicated rangers based in all penguin colonies, more protected spaces for them to seek refuge from their declining habitat and stricter laws surrounding the protection of penguins. I would like to see more accurate information about African Penguins circulating because an informed individual makes informed choices – Kashiefa Amos

Why are African penguins important? Why are we trying to save them?

Other than for their own sake and their right to exist, penguins are important as keystone species and sentinels. They are a vital cog in the wheel of a functioning ocean ecosystem. As sentinels, their decline shows that the ecosystem, which they play a vital role in, is currently very unhealthy indeed. As things stand the West Coast population of African Penguins could be functionally extinct by 2035. – Vardaman Hahndiek

What are the biggest threats to the African penguins and what can we do to help protect them?

The biggest threat to penguins will always be people. We affect their lives and environment in which they live more and more each day. The best way to combat this is through education, the more we can spread the word about them the better chance they will have to survive an ever-changing world – Mikaela Slier

The Simon’s Town colony is one of the few places where we can see the African Penguins in their natural habitat and interact with the friendly penguin rangers who are dedicated to their conservation.

If you are interested, you can adopt a penguin through the SANCCOB’s website. This will allow you to help fund the care, the medication and the food your adopted penguin needs to be successfully rehabilitated and released back into the wild: https://adopt.sanccob.co.za/get-involved/adopt-a-penguin/

Photos by Elisey Buncelman