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African Penguins Invest in the Nest

Conservation Corner: Invest in the Nest

Posted in: Conservation, News

Tags: african penguin, AZA

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Something big is coming up this month and it’s kicking off on Wednesday the 17th 2017. It’s called Invest in the Nest and it marks the very first collaboration between the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) and that famous funder of everything from rock albums to the restoration of Neil Armstrong’s spacesuit. I’m talking of course about Kickstarter.

Kickstarter is a fairly recognizable company at this point, but the AZA is more likely to be unfamiliar. Essentially, the AZA is a national organization that serves as an accrediting board for zoos, aquariums, and wildlife preserves like Safari West.

The AZA is an association of zoological facilities that hold themselves to a higher level of care and quality and have a more noble aim than profit alone. Those of us in the AZA take pride in the fact that we provide the utmost in professional care for our animals and have as a primary mission, “the exhibition, conservation, and preservation of the earth’s fauna in an educational and scientific manner.” Essentially, it’s a grouping of facilities that want you to have an intimate experience with wildlife so that you’ll join us in trying to help conserve it.

That’s right, conservation is key in the AZA. So much so in fact that two years ago, the AZA instituted a program called AZA SAFE (Saving Animals From Extinction). AZA SAFE represents the realization that the zoos, aquariums, and wildlife parks scattered across this nation have a unique ability to interface with the public that other agencies can’t match. The US Fish and Wildlife Service, or the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) can declare the whooping crane endangered, but it’s the zoos and aquariums that can best introduce this delicate species to the public and direct grassroots conservation action.

The AZA SAFE program started small, by looking at the long list of endangered species and selecting 10 to serve as AZA SAFE Signature Species. Once identified, we set to work rallying the communal force of all the AZA members with their animal care experts, veterinarians, biologists, conservationists, and animal lovers of every stripe. We also reach out to the vast array of related conservation agencies that our membership has developed relationships with over the years. AZA SAFE essentially crowd-sources the people and data needed to marshal action for the AZA SAFE species. It’s an amazing program.

Safari West is currently home to two of the ten AZA Safe species: the cheetah, of which three currently live at Safari West, and the western pond turtle, which is a native species found in several waterways around our vast preserve. We are directly involved in the work to improve the conservation status of both of these unique species. We also have a role to play with the AZA SAFE species that aren’t represented on the property. For example, our gift gallery contains a Conservation Corner. Not only are the products sold there either of direct use in conservation action or produced by conservation agencies, but each fiscal quarter we dedicate 10% of the money brought in by the Conservation Corner toward a specific conservation aim. This quarter, for instance, we are fundraising for the incredibly rare vaquita dolphin; perhaps the most endangered of the AZA SAFE signature species (there are likely less than 30 of them left).

One AZA SAFE species is about to be the center of the novel collaboration with Kickstarter that I mentioned at the outset: the African penguin. First of all, yes, there is such a thing as an African penguin. They’re found only along the coastlines of South Africa and Namibia. While they are not a species present at Safari West, they can be seen at the nearby California Academy of Sciences, as well as at the Monterey Bay Aquarium (in fact, some of their African penguins were involved in a “March of the Penguins for science” march around the aquarium on Earth Day).

Over the last hundred years or so, African penguin populations have declined from somewhere near a million animals to an estimated 25,000 or less today. As with so many species, they have been negatively impacted by a variety of issues including climate change, food shortages, and catastrophic oil spills. One problem faced by the African penguins stands out as being fairly unique, and it has to do with penguin poop.

Historically, African penguins have bred in colonies on offshore islands. For thousands upon thousands of years, these penguins have been nesting, and pooping, on these islands. This penguin waste, called guano, piled up and piled up, eventually forming layers several feet in thickness. While this may sound pretty gross, it served a very valuable service and the penguins eventually came to rely on this ever-present layer of guano.

Each year, African penguins would burrow into the guano to build their nests. The burrows would provide them some protection from predators, and the insulating mass of guano worked as a highly effective insulator, keeping the penguin eggs and babies cool and comfortable. The problem arose when guano’s high value as a fertilizer was discovered. Suddenly, penguin poop became a valued commodity and was harvested on an industrial scale. This left the penguins to nest on exposed, barren ground. As a result of this, a disproportionate number of penguin nests now fail, with eggs and young lost to predators, the elements, and heat stress. The loss of the guano layer and the protection it affords seems to be the most influential factor contributing to the rapid decline of the African penguin.

All is not lost, however, and this is where we begin to see the true value of the AZA SAFE program. The combined work of conservationists, scientists, and AZA facilities have led to the development of an artificial nest box. These artificial nests look a bit like little kennels and mimic the “hole-in-the-guano” dens preferred by the penguins. They’ve been carefully engineered to provide the necessary air circulation and spectacular insulation so critical for penguin nesting.

Already a great deal of work has gone into establishing a supply chain for these artificial nests and working out the logistics of how to place them where the penguins will use them. At the same time, several AZA facilities around the country continue to experiment with various prototypes to determine which models are most effective and popular among the penguins.

On May 17th, check in with AZA.org and kickstarter.com for details on what the next stage in this project entails and how you can be involved. Your support of this project will have a massive impact on the status of this vulnerable species, and since it’s Kickstarter, you can expect some awesome rewards as well.

On May 17th, join Safari West, AZA Safe, and our friend’s at Kickstarter and Invest in the Nest!

Jared Paddock

Jared Paddock

Safari West staff and conservation writer.