Published: Tuesday 31 October 2000

-- More than half of the total African penguin population, which was on the verge of dying, were saved due to the efforts of thousands of people. The penguins of the Dassen Island and the Robben Island, had faced a threat of extinction when oil from a sunken ship had leaked on June 23, 2000, leading to a 1,100-tonne oil slick which engulfed their colonies.

But South African conservationists, funded and assisted by international organisations such as the World Wildlife Fund and the International Fund for Animal Welfare, were able to save these birds. Around 23,000 oiled birds were transported to two sites in Cape Town and thousands of volunteers, worked around the clock to clean and feed them. Another 17,000 unaffected birds were transported to the Indian Ocean waters at Port Elizabeth, on the expectation that in the three to four weeks they would take to swim back home, the oilslick would be under control.

Now, most of the birds have returned to their habitats, with a survival rate of 95 per cent -- the highest till now. "This incident is a very good example of a man-made disaster and a man-made solution. When such an incident takes place again -- and it will -- this will be the blueprint of how to deal with the situation," one of the volunteer's said. According to some conservationists, this has set the standard for the saving water birds exposed to oil spills.

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