Dyer Island was once the most important breeding ground in the world for the African penguin. But now these delightful birds are struggling to breed successfully. A new initiative has brought hope, though. You can give a penguin couple a home to raise chicks successfully.

Did you know?

Decades ago, penguin eggs were considered something of a delicacy.

For centuries, Dyer Island off Gansbaai was home to world’s greatest concentration of African penguins.

It literally teemed with penguins and another seabirds, and as a result, their guano on the island was metres deep. The island must have reeked to high heaven, but the penguins found it a delightfully soft and convenient substance to burrow into for nesting.

All was well until the 1800s when England and America needed fertiliser for their exhausted soils. Guano was perfect, and islands like Dyer were methodically stripped.

Even so, Dyer Island remains one of South Africa’s 101 Important Bird Areas. Rare seabirds are often seen here.

You’ll pass it on a whale-watching or shark-diving expedition, so bring your binoculars to spot the many bird species. What you won’t easily see are the African penguins that once filled this 20-hectare island.

As recently as the 1970s, there were 25 000 breeding pairs of penguins on Dyer Island. Today that number stands at just 1 200 pairs. A similar sharp population drop in other African penguin colonies resulted in the species being reclassified as endangered in 2010.

The reasons for the dramatic population drop are many, but a key problem remains the historic removal of guano, which started in the 1840s and only stopped in the mid-1900s. The penguins can’t burrow, so they have to nest on open ground, making their chicks and eggs vulnerable to predators like kelp gulls.

In the absence of guano, the Dyer Island Conservation Trust has come up with a burrow-substitute. It’s a fibrecrete artificial penguin nest.

The nests are designed to improve breeding success by sheltering the young from predators. They also reduce heat stress.

Each nest costs R400 and thousands have been bought by members of the public. But the proof is in the pudding. Trustees have been gratified to see that mere hours after a nest has been dug into the rocky ground, a pair of penguins moves in.

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