Penguins v leopards: two sides of conservation debate in South Africa

Friday 24 June 2016

When threatened species come into conflict, the benefit of conserving one species over the other becomes the deciding factor


                    Conservationists are distressed at the death of penguins in Stony Point Credit: Mark Kent / Flicker
Conservationists are distressed at the death of penguins in Stony Point Credit: Mark Kent / Flicker

Daytime vigilance and nocturnal patrols have increased at the Stony Point penguin colony in Betty’s Bay. Dog patrols are conducted randomly; camera traps have been set up in locations and scent deterrents like lion scat and pepper spray are being used. The killing of 33 endangered penguins by a roving leopard on June 11 has compelled the authorities to go full throttle in preventing such attacks in future.

This incident, which took place at a nature reserve outside Cape Town, can be described as one-off since both the prey and the predator are considered rare species. While African penguin was declared endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, leopard itself is a threatened species hunted for centuries.

In defence of penguins

Conservationists are distressed at the death of penguins in Stony Point. They have seen the worst times for penguins and it is only recently that the resurgence of this charismatic bird brought smile on their faces. It has been a hard-won battle for the species that has grown to more than 2,000 breeding pairs.

These black-footed penguins, one of the top marine predators in Africa, are now staring at extinction due to commercial fisheries and oil spills. The only penguin species to breed in Africa is found on the southwestern coast of the continent. It lives on 24 islands located between Namibia and Algoa Bay near Port Elizabeth in South Africa. Their numbers started dwindling ever since industrial fishing started around the Cape. Stony Point, alone, is home to over 2,388 breeding pairs.

These penguins are quite a draw for tourists who can’t resist watching these birds waddle along. If penguins come under threat, tourism will be a thing of past and the locals will have to shut their restaurants and souvenir stores.

In defence of leopards

Leopards have reportedly lost 75 per cent of their global range. In Africa, they outnumber endemic African penguins by 2:1 ratio. However, leopard is rarer if we focus only on two provinces. According to Bool Smuts, director of the Landmark Foundation, a conservation organisation, “The adult leopard population in Western Cape and Eastern Cape is 500-700. They’re critically endangered here and continue to be hammered by human-wildlife conflict. I’m not surprised the leopard took some birds. It’s completely natural behaviour.” South African government, however, doesn't seem too worried about the 'threatened' status of leopards as it allows tourists to hunt this majestic cat in exchange of a hefty sum (US$ 20,000) to fill its coffers. 

That doesn't stop locals from sympathising with the leopard that's suspected to have killed penguins. They don’t want to see it harmed. According to them, the nature reserve doesn’t have enough space to sustain so many penguins. For some residents of Betty’s Bay, a coastal holiday town east of Cape Town, it’s a privilege to spot a leopard during their walks. 

History of aversion towards penguins

The world may get thrilled at the sight of these cute flightless birds, but the locals don’t share the same feeling. When the African penguin made a comeback to the South African mainland in the 1980s, tourism started gaining steam and people were thrilled to know that the bird was again breeding on a few islands off the coast of Cape Town.

The excitement fizzled out sooner than expected as the locals started to feel that penguins are getting out of hand. The fences built to protect them fell into disrepair and birds started encroaching on suburban yards. After a point of time, Betty’s Bay residents seemed to be saying, “We have had enough of the stinky birds”.  What also irked them is the “donkey-like bray” that would keep them awake at night. For those who don’t know, the African penguins are also called jackass penguins for the donkey-like sound they make. 

Threatened v Endangered

The reactions from wildlife conservationists seem skewed in favour of penguins. According to Peter Ryan, director of the Percy FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology at the University of Cape Town, “It’s always tricky when threatened species come into conflict. However, in this case, it should be fairly clear that the benefit of conserving the only growing African penguin population outweighs the importance of a single leopard.” Guy Balme of conservation group Panthera takes a similar stand: “As long as there’s other suitable prey available, leopards and other carnivores can be discouraged.” Even in the IUCN red list, the importance of “endangered” penguins easily outweighs the merely “threatened” leopard.

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