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THE AFRICAN PENGUIN (article first published : 2001-09-19)

The African Penguin – a natural history by Phil Hockey is a small handy-sized delightful little softcover book that will be of interest not only to birders but to anyone who is fascinated with wild life and the South African environment.

World Wildlife Fund SA has identified the African penguin as a flagship species for the conservation of biodiversity and this book aptly portrays the history and adaptation of the quaint and charming creatures right from the days of the dinosaurs. It’s not an academic discussion about penguins but a book that anyone can read, accompanied by beautiful photographs.

The African Penguin is the only penguin species to breed in Africa and is confined largely to the cold waters of the extreme southwest. It has shorter feathers than those of its Antarctic cousins which have to face much colder temperatures.

Phil Hockey, well-known for his work on the African Black Oystercatcher, states that “Penguins have taken wing reduction to its evolutionary conclusion”. He offers fascinating details on the penguin’s superbly streamlined body with a bill flattened to slice through water and an ability to dive to a depth of 300 metres. His respect and love for these creatures are evident in his explanations of how penguins breed, incubate and raise their young. Also the vital process of preening feathers and moulting and how their prowess in the water compromises their performance on land where they are ungainly and awkward.

Because they can’t move quickly on land and nest in precarious locations, penguins are very vulnerable. Also one shipping disaster - such as that created last year when the bulk oil carrier MV Treasure sank between Robben and Dassen islands producing a major oil spillage - can obliterate an entire colony.

“At the start of the 20th Century,” the author states, “it is likely that there were more than 2,000,000 African Penguins.” He goes on to present the alarming news that today the total population stands at 129,000 adults including about 56,000 breeding pairs.

However, concerted efforts to preserve the species and the penguins’ own adaptability to new homes, means that there is a greater awareness of the African Penguin. Some 15 years ago, penguin pioneers laid their first clutch at the unlikely location of Boulders Beach, a surprising move considering its proximity to Cape Town. By 1997 this colony had grown to more than one percent of the entire African Penguin population. There is a charming picture of five penguins pottering along a pavement and coastal signage warns drivers to check for penguins under their vehicle before departing.

The double page photographic chapter introductions include apt quotations from writers such as this one from Lawrence G Green in his At Daybreak for the Isles, 1950: “Flightless birds have a hard time in the ruthless world of nature and I suppose it is this reason that the penguin is following the Great Auk and the Dodo.”

Published by Struik The African Penguin – a Natural History retails at R49.95.




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