African Penguins and the Blue Economy “Penguins”

Namibia/South Africa

Project duration August 2020 to September 2022 

project summary

African penguins, endemic to South Africa and Namibia, are important constituents of African coastal biodiversity, serve as bioindicators of ecosystem health and contribute significantly to the blue economy. However, their population has declined by >95% over the last 100 years and they face extinction within the next 20 to 80 years. Conservation strategies implemented so far have reduced, but not halted, the population decline. This is most likely due to the fact that important aspects, like food shortage and disease risk have not been sufficiently addressed. 

Major knowledge gaps remain, particularly around health and anthropogenic threats, and responsibility for managing the breeding colonies (25+) is divided among multiple stakeholder groups, complicating policy making and strategy. Two colonies located on the mainland are major tourist attractions, with one (Boulders, Cape Town) attracting more than half a million visitors each year; a continuing decline will therefore have both negative ecosystem and economic effects.

Through a series of workshops, key stakeholder groups (national and local government representatives, NGO specialists, researchers and technical personnel) will be actively engaged in the identification of factors responsible for population decline through provision of key data and models to inform strategies and monitoring tools as early-warning systems. The ultimate goal is to optimize conservation policies. Participating decision makers include the departments of environment in both South Africa and Namibia. Such events have been previously rare in South Africa where management of the different colonies is divided among multiple groups, often with little systematic contact. The project will therefore create a platform of collaboration that should extend beyond the lifetime of the programme and ensure better synergy in decision-making and policy setting.


 To optimize conservation policies by actively engaging key stakeholder groups in the identification of factors responsible for population decline through provision of key data and models to inform strategies and monitoring tools as early-warning systems.

 Assess the epidemiology of important infectious diseases through a population-wide survey.

 Assess the presence and potential impact of toxic chemicals arising from human activities.

 Develop two monitoring tools, one using citizen science, the other drone/digital technology, to monitor adverse events and changes in population size/structure.

 Extend and develop statistical models that will inform conservation strategies.

 Engage with key stakeholder groups to assess attitudes and priorities and achieve a unified and informed approach to conservation policies.


areas of work

Disease survey in Namibia and South Africa

  • Determine the presence, prevalence and risk factors for avian influenza (HPAI) in a representative sample of African penguins
  • Assess the prevalence and characterize haemoparasites of penguins
  • Assess the prevalence and identify faecal parasites
  • Collect samples for biobanking

Pilot study of toxic pollutants

  • Determine the presence, prevalence and risk factors of selected indicative  compounds of emerging concern (CECs) in representative samples of African penguins (tissue, blood, faeces)
  • Assess the impact of CECs upon the histology, morphology, vitality, motility and viability of sperm or testes cells of penguins in vitro
  • Assess the prevalence of CECs in colony surrounds
  • Advocate for regulatory control of effluent quality

Model update and development

  • Investigate the influence of diseases and chemical contaminants on the African penguin population dynamics, and include all stakeholders in the interpretation of results and implementation of science-driven measures needed for penguin population conservation.

Tools to Monitor Populations  

  • Design and implement a survey, using an app for reporting beached animals and citizen science, that will provide regular, high-quality data in a standardised format for further investigation.
  • Explore how the app can be extended to include other marine species, thereby providing a comprehensive monitoring tool for coastal surveillance.
  • Use of unmanned aerial vehicles (“drones”) to monitor penguin colonies.

Stakeholder engagement

  • Opening workshop to garner views on priorities for conserving penguins and the research/advice needs of the different organisations.
  • At the end of the first year, lead researchers will gather in Berlin for a project workshop and attend the Kick-off Event of the UN Ocean Decade 2021 where the presentation of the project in side event is planned.
  • Closing workshop will report the findings and conclusions of each of the measures, present how these impact policy making, and seek stakeholder views on the way forward.


 Freie Universität Berlin (FUB)

University of Western Cape (UWC)

University of Pretoria (UP)

University of Namibia (UNAM)