Penguin conservation in South Africa has had to overcome a bewildering array of challenges – climate change, dwindling fish stocks, and lack of suitable habitat. But the most dramatic moment came in 2000, when an oil slick threatened the largest concentration of African penguins. South Africans sprang to the rescue.

Did you know?

African penguins used to be called jackass penguins because of their braying call.

If you squint your eyes only a little, it's easy to see African penguins as knee-high, rather formally dressed little people.

They are endearing creatures, and observing them up close and personal at Boulders Beach near Cape Town, where a colony of over 3000 birds are thriving, remains one of life's great joys.

But their numbers have been diminishing for decades. In 2010 the African penguin was listed as endangered on the Red Data list.

Penguin conservation in South Africa has demanded some innovative thinking. Back in the winter of 2000, a ship carrying 1300 tons of oil sank near Robben and Dassen islands – sanctuaries critical to the conservation of penguins. It had the makings of a real disaster.

Oiled penguins were rehabilitated by hundreds of volunteers at Sanccob (the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds). Thousands of unoiled penguins were fenced in to stop them going into the polluted sea. But they couldn't be kept there indefinitely.

A cunning plan was hatched to buy time. More than 20 000 African penguins were taken to Port Elizabeth and they were released into the sea, nearly 1000 km away from their traditional home.

Three penguins had transmitters fitted, and the South African public breathlessly followed their progress as they and the others swam back home, giving authorities two weeks' grace to clean up the islands' beaches.

Another heart-warming story is that of the penguin nests. Penguins prefer to nest in burrows or under bushes, protecting their eggs and young from heat and predation.

The Dyer Island Conservation Trust came up with the idea of artificial fibrecrete burrows for penguins. Once installed, penguins move in almost immediately and breed successfully – a real boost for penguin conservation in South Africa.

Apart from Boulders Beach in Cape Town, you can also see African penguins at the excellent South African Marine Rehabilitation and Education Centre (Samrec) rehabilitation and visitors' centre in Port Elizabeth, at the Sanccob head office and visitors' centre in Tableview, Cape Town, and at the Sanccob Eastern Cape centre in Cape St Francis.

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