When we were in South Africa after attending the International Penguin Conference in September, we managed to get a visit to the SANCCOB facility in Table View where we were shown around by Francois Louw, the Development and Marketing Coordinator.
Sanccob was set up in 1968 by Althea Westphal to treat oil covered penguins which were not being looked after properly by other organisations. She scrubbed them with soap in her bathroom before hosing them down with a hosepipe and feeding them with strips of hake covered in cooking oil.
Sanccob isn’t just about penguins, but looks after all types of sea birds that are brought in or reported injured, including gannets, pelicans and cormorants, but it’s the penguins they are most famous for. The site in Cape Town can take up to 1,500 injured or sick birds, although it gets very crowded when that happens. There are also intensive care facilities, a full time vet and a chick rearing unit. For the flying birds there is a aviary that can take up to 80 birds.
When someone finds an injured penguin in the Cape Town are they give Sanccob a call and they send someone out to rescue it. The two onshore colonies are in Stony Point in Betty’s Bay to the east and Boulder’s Beach just next to Simon’s Town. Both are within an hour or so drive of the centre in Table view, so they can pick them up quite quickly to take them back to be treated. Once it is rescued it is taken back to the centre where the vet, currently Natasha Ayres from Redhill in Surrey, inspects them and decides on the treatment they need. They are then passed on to a dedicated team that looks after them on a daily basis, making sure they are fed properly and their condition doesn’t deteriorate. Whilst most birds recover, some are never going to be capable of looking after themselves in the wild, so they are kept together in a pen near the entrance where they can greet visitors. When the others recover, they are taken back to the area they were originally found and released, usually on a Thursday, in front of crowds of people who watch as they waddle back to the sea and freedom.
The other thing they are well known for is the chick rearing. When it gets to breeding season, some adults abandon their eggs and the team rescues them to see if they are fertile. If they are fertile, they are placed in incubators until they hatched, then transferred to the chick rearing unit where they are few until they grow up enough to lose their baby feathers and can learn to swim and catch their own food. They are then released into the wild to join the adult population to start the next generation. Since the project started in 2006, SANCCOB has released more than 4,000 penguin chicks back into the wild, which is really helping to maintain the population.
People sometimes ask why organisations like SANCCOB are so important. The biggest problem is that the population of African penguins is declining. In 1956, only 60 years ago, there were an estimated 141,000 breeding pairs of African Penguins. Now there are only 21,000 breeding pairs left and they have almost disappeared from Namibia. The causes are complex, including competition for habitat and fish with people, as well as climate change. Therefore the work of organisations like SANCCOB is vital to keep the penguins of South Africa alive and well.