South Africa: Meet the Man Attempting to Save the African Penguin

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African penguin

African penguins, known for their irregular markings and loud call, are in sharp decline. The species has gone from a population of more than a million at the beginning of the 20th century to being endangered. South African bioscientist Patrick Mafunda is using in-vitro fertilisation to help the species survive.

African penguins, also known as Spheniscus demersus (Greek and Latin) or blackfoot penguins, have steadily been headed for extinction since industrial fishing started around South Africa's Cape of Good Hope. Commercial fisheries and shifts in prey populations have exacerbated the problem.

Dr Ross Wanless, seabird division manager for Birdlife South Africa, told Siyabona Africa, "The colonies around our coast have shrunk to dangerously small numbers. Now the colonies are very vulnerable to small-scale events, such as bad weather, seal predation or seagulls taking eggs. In a large, healthy population, these events were trivial. Now they have potentially serious consequences. We're almost at the point of managing individual birds."

Dr Rob Crawford, chief scientist for Marine and Coastal Management, the government department responsible for monitoring and protecting seabirds, also told the publication, "While it's difficult to prove exactly what has caused the decreases, all the indications are that the penguins are struggling to find enough sardines and anchovies. A huge amount is done to protect penguins from other threats, but the decreases have continued unabated."

Patrick Siyambulela Mafunda

South African bioscientist Patrick Siyambulela Mafunda is attempting to be the first to artificially inseminate an African penguin. Mafunda, who learned of the species decline while researching options for his PhD at the University of the Western Cape, decided to take the unprecedented step of using in-vitro fertilisation (IVF) to aid in their conservation.

"What pushed me was knowing that this was the only African penguin species we have," Mafunda told CNN. "Preserving a genetic pool is vital."

Siyabona Africa reports that Mafunda has developed an abdominal massage technique for extracting sperm from live penguins, to be conducted during breeding season, when the penguins are most virile. In his trials this delicate task was performed by staff at Cape Town's Two Oceans Aquarium.

"The handlers work with the penguins every day, so the penguins react better to them," said Mafunda. "The birds are not known for being friendly!"

Despite challenges and complications, Mafunda was able to collect sufficient sperm samples over several breeding seasons to use in live tests.

"The next stage is to create a biobank for African penguin sperm that we know is good quality," said Mafunda. "That will allow us to perform the IVF and produce (fertilised) eggs."

The bioscientist has arrived at the stage where he now has to options: He could incubate the eggs in lab ovens for 30 to 40 days until they hatch or go the more ambitious route of implanting the egg into a living penguin and allow nature to do the rest.

However, according to CNN, he needs new partnerships with academic and conservation institutions to offer funding and support that will allow him to continue his research and deliver the proof of concept: the first lab-cultivated living African penguin.

"I believe this can be a solution," he said. "There are many strategies required for conservation; we cannot rely on just one. This is one of the strategies I believe we must use."

Immediate conservation efforts

Despite the immense promise Mafunda's novel work holds for the conservation of the African penguin, other conservationists feel there are more pressing avenues to explore at the moment.

Christina Hagen, a conservationist at Birdlife South Africa, said, "There is still an African penguin population in the wild that will be able to breed successfully given the right conditions. The sperm bank could come into play if the population drops to really low levels."

"The trouble facing the penguins is a lack of food such as sardines and anchovies. There are real problems with the availability of their diet. That has, in our view, caused a massive decline. Until we address that, putting more penguins out there won't solve the problem."

She conceded, however, that IVF techniques are a growth field within conservation and a useful tool in dire circumstances, "With endangered species, we should try as many options as we can that won't hurt the animals or species, so we should look at these ideas," she says. "Also, it is good to develop these techniques in advance, before you need them, rather than having to rush at the last minute and not have them ready."

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