Monday, February 26, 2018

Habitat Help: The Great Penguin Rescue by Sandra Markle

On a mild June evening, a three-month old female African penguin chick wiggles out of her family's nest under a tree.

She moans in short bursts, over and over. It's the way a penguin chick says, "I'm hungry. Please feed me."

By the third evening when her parents don't return, she wanders away from the nest, peeping, begging to be fed. She's on her own and needs help--or she won't survive.

When most people think of endangered African animals, they definitely don't think of penguins. But the southern coastal islands of Namibia and South Africa are the home nesting grounds of the African penguin, a species which is as endangered as rhinos and cheetahs.

African penguins have raised their young there for millennia, but human activities have reduced their population from four million in the early 1800s to no more than 24,000 today. First, people scooped off the penguin guano, which forms a firm, cooling roof for the penguin's nests, to use as fertilizer, leaving the babies open to predators and excess heat. Then humans began to collect the eggs, prized for their unusual flavor. But penguins only lay two eggs per summer, and the number of chicks hatched was reduced by 75 per cent. Warming of the waters has forced the small fish that the penguins needed further offshore, often beyond their twelve-mile swimming range, and the parent birds were forced to compete with vast factory ships that net and process the small fish upon which the penguins depend. With only a quarter of their chicks surviving to breeding age, the African penguin will have a hard time surviving this century.

Luckily, African penguins now have help from those humans. Following a disastrous freighter fuel leak in 2000, people began to realize that Africa's penguins needed them. Animal rescue groups rushed to clean and feed the oil-soaked penguins, and many survived. Since that time, the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums have managed to raise and return many young African penguins to the wild. Some of the nesting islands have been declared "no-take" zones, free from fishing vessels inside the 12-mile feeding limits of the small penguins. The Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds began a successful rescue program for chicks whose parents fail to make the long swim home.

The jury is still out on whether these efforts will save the African penguin, but noted nature writer Sandra Markle's The Great Penguin Rescue: Saving the African Penguins (Millbrook Press, 2017) will recruit some enthusiastic penguin supporters. Well written and filled with engaging color photographs of her appealing subjects, this one is an easily accessible nature science book, appealing to middle readers, with ample backmatter (author's Note, a "Did You Know" section on African penguin physiology, a timeline, glossary, bibliography and notes) that support classroom research reports for elementary and middle-school students.

"Smoothly written and beautifully presented, another stellar animal conservation tale," says Kirkus in their starred review.

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