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When an injured penguin was spotted on the beach in Jeffreys Bay, the NSRI stepped in to help.

“Usually these rescues start when the phone rings and someone says, ‘Hello, I’m not sure if this is the right number to call, but there’s an injured penguin here on the beach’,” Paul van Jaarsveld, Station Commander for Station 37 (Jeffreys Bay), says with a wry smile.

“I would then put out a general message on our Whatsapp group to see if anyone is available to assist, and I’d also inform Dean Luyt, who is our marine strandings officer here at the station. He is connected to the people from Bayworld, The Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB), and a local expert named Trumi Viljoen. She’s been involved with penguin rescue for a very long time.”

Capturing this injured penguin, as with all the others, had to be done in a very specific way, as penguins are wild animals and will bite if they feel threatened. “There’s a bit of a trick to it,” Paul says. “In the beginning we’d call someone out to help us. We’ve now learned how it’s done and can teach new volunteers the right way to do it.”

Watching NSRI volunteers become less fearful of capturing the penguins is something that Trudi Malan from the African Penguin & Seabird Sanctuary at Dyer Island finds quite heart-warming. Trudi works closely with Trumi and many of the NSRI crews.

“The African penguin packs a serious punch. They are tenacious little fellows!” she says. “Initially the newbies wear gloves, but then they get to a point when they feel more confident about capturing them. The NSRI is an essential part of our rescue efforts. Inevitably, members of the public will call them when they see a stranded penguin because it’s the phone number that they usually have access to. It’s always wonderful to see NGOs supporting each other in this way.”

The NSRI has been given special crates to transport the sea birds. “With this particular penguin, it was clear that his leg was broken. The local vet was contacted, who sorted the leg out. A volunteer then took him to SANCCOB in Port Elizabeth,” Paul says.

According to Trudie, African penguins are quite resilient, which means that this little chap has a very good chance of getting back to his natural habitat. “We have a very high release rate,” she says. “Aside from cases where there’s a massive wound, we're able to get the birds in, treat them and release them. We very rarely get any that become habituated.”

A big problem that stranded penguins face is that members of the public want to handle or pet them. “We have a similar problem with seals. Dogs will also harass the animals. People don’t necessarily understand that it’s a wild animal,” Paul says.

The NSRI attends to more seal rescues than penguin rescues, says Dean, who jokes that the NSRI should change its name to ‘The National Seal Rescue Institute’. “Penguins are cuter than the seals. They don’t bite as hard!” Paul says with a laugh.

“There’s always been a great willingness from all of our crew members if a call goes out about a stranded animal to go and babysit it,” Dean says. “With seals, we don’t immediately capture them – we cordon off the area where they are and ensure that no humans or dogs approach them. Hopefully, after they’ve rested, they’ll return to the ocean. However, if they’re on a particularly busy part of the beach, then we have to move them.”

A stranded penguin, however, is almost always a penguin who needs to be captured and assisted, Trudi says. “A penguin that is on a beach, outside of a penguin colony, is a penguin in trouble. And with penguin numbers declining, every penguin counts!”

IMAGE CREDIT: Deon Lategan

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