Scientists from Stellenbosch University have conducted research exploring the historical habitat of African penguins in southern Africa to gain insight into the current vulnerability of the species. The researchers estimated the population of the African penguin during the last Ice Age, around 22,000 years ago, and examined the impact of climate change on the species. The study revealed that, during the last 22,000 years, rising sea levels reduced the suitable nesting habitats for African penguins, which led to a tenfold decline in population numbers. At the Last Glacial Maximum, there were at least 15 large islands along the southern and western coasts of southern Africa, with the largest being 300 square kilometres, that were swarming with hundreds of millions of marine birds and penguin colonies. The study suggests that there have been major changes in habitat availability over the last 22,000 years, which could have had a massive effect on penguin populations.
The researchers argue that the findings raise concerns about the current vulnerability of African penguins, but also highlight the potential for a reserve of resilience in the species that may be leveraged for its conservation and management in an uncertain future. The researchers suggest that changing sea levels would have necessitated the need for multiple relocations of breeding colonies of African penguins on time scales of centuries, if not even shorter time scales, and intense competition for breeding space as island habitat became greatly reduced in size. This historical flexibility of response provides some leeway for conservation managers to make available suitable breeding space, even in mainland sites, as long as appropriate nesting sites are made available. The study also suggests that, given the chance of relocation, the African penguin has the potential to survive as it has in the past.
However, the researchers argue that modern human pressures such as commercial fishing, climate change and habitat destruction pose a significant challenge to the persistence of the species. The current penguin population in South Africa is supported by only seven breeding colonies, and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature classified the African penguin as endangered in May 2005. The research provides insights into the history of the African penguin population, which can help guide conservation efforts to ensure the continued survival of the species in the future. The researchers emphasise the importance of addressing modern human pressures on the species, such as commercial fishing, habitat destruction, and climate change, to ensure the long-term survival of the African penguin.