Sanccob – all in a day’s work

Sanccob – all in a day’s work

Have you ever heard an African penguins Spheniscus demersus call? Perhaps that is the reason they are know as Jackass penguins; their call sounds very similar to a donkey braying. Another important fact about these flightless aquatic birds is that they (like so many other species) are endangered. The cause of their decline is mainly due to low fish stocks from overfishing. Another threat to their colonies is oil spills. The main colonies which are dotted around the southern coast of South Africa include Boulders Beach, Stony Point in the Western Cape and St Croix in Port Elizabeth which is the largest African penguin colony in the world.

Sanccob - all in a day’s work
An African penguin call is very distinctive and sounds much like a donkey braying.


In the late 1960s, a remarkable woman named Althea Louise Burman Westphal set up a temporary station at her home in Claremont to treat oiled penguins, after realising that the SPCA’s facilities were not suitable for this task. The Esso Essen spill was the first of the significant recognised spills, and Althea began rehabilitating 60 severely oiled penguins. In those days, the birds were scrubbed with Sunlight soap, three at a time in Althea’s bathroom and rinsed with a hose. She fed them long strips of hake, which had been dipped in cooking oil. The birds were given a 50/50 chance of survival.

The penguins had a wooden trailer filled with water in Althea’s garden as their swimming pool. Later, she obtained a huge stainless-steel dye vat to use as a pool. Two or three times a week the birds were driven to Blaauwberg in Althea’s station wagon, marched down the beach to the tidal pool and allowed to swim for an hour. During this time, Althea carried out extensive research on the “Jackass penguin” to help her understand its lifestyle and dietary requirements. Early in 1968, Althea started enquiries into establishing a rescue operation, and eventually she persuaded Dr Roy Siegfried of PFPI to help her launch

Proof that the African penguin species was declining was obtained through photographic evidence of the islands from 1914 to the 1930s. Althea was given a permit to operate by the Department of Guano Islands, and a grant of R10 000 from the SA Wildlife Foundation (now the WWF) for a three-year Population Dynamics Study on Dassen Island. SANCCOB achieved its first milestone in December of 1969 at a conference in the Kruger National Park when the collection of penguin eggs on the islands was banned. Althea’s efforts in seabird conservation continued for decades, and she was recognised by conservation organisations such as SA Nature Foundation and the World Wide Fund for Nature and Conservation. She nourished and drove SANCCOB from its modest early stages to become an international leader in coastal bird rehabilitation.

Some African penguins are too badly injured and will not be able to cope in the wild. They are kept in a home pen at Sanccob and used for environmental education.

Sanccob now has two rehabilitation centres, one located in the Western Cape in Cape Town and the other in Port Elizabeth. I recently spent a morning at the Cape Town centre accompanied by Mrs Daniels, the Public Relations Officer who gave me a short tour of the facilities. I was also lucky enough to see and photograph four penguins that were being prepared to be released into the wild and had an interview with the research assistant Mr Snyman and the clinical veterinarian Mr Roberts about certain aspects of how Sanccob operates. Let’s see what they had to say.


Q – What is the procedure when an injured bird comes to the centre?

A – Injuries of birds can range from seal bites to broken wings and broken legs to malnutritional birds who rely on fish.  All birds come from varies areas, whether it be Boulders, Stony point or Dassen island. Most birds come from the colonies whether it be the conservation organisations or members of the public who either bring birds to us or call us to pick a bird up. The whole procedure starts even before the bird comes to us. For example, if a bird needs help out of regular working hours, a team will go out, catch the injured bird, give it some fluid and then keep it in the comfortable dark area until it can be delivered to the centre. Once at the centre it will be checked over by the resident vet who will diagnose the bird and make sure that any other tests or x rays are implemented. (A total of three vets work here, and at least one of those vets need to be present at all times).  

A final measurement of the penguins head before being released into the wild.

Once this is completed the bird is assigned a number, for instance, an African penguin will be PG 456. No names are given to the birds due to the vast amounts of birds that come in. It also minimises staff bonding and growing attached to the birds. Date, weight, age, hydration check and location of where the bird was found are all recorded. A blood sample will be taken from the bird to test iron levels as some birds can be quite anaemic when brought to the centre. The blood sample also shows if there is an infection and the degree of that infection. The third thing the blood shows is if it has parasites in it, because when the bird gets stressed their immune systems weaken and the parasite spread and take over. After this is completed, the bird will be taken to a secure room or pen for it to recover and once the bird has been declared fit for release it will be released back into the wild.

Sanccob - all in a day’s work
A last blood sample is taken before this penguin is released into the wild.

Q – What is the procedure when penguin eggs get brought to the centre?

A – The eggs are put into small incubators at a specific temperature. Once they are ready to hatch the chick starts hitting the shell with the hard tip of its beak (this is called pipping). No external aid given by staff, only in extreme circumstances will a staff member help the chick out of the egg, for instance if it turns around and blocks the hole in the eggshell, this is important as once the egg is broken the chick immediately starts breathing in air. The chicks are fed a cocktail of fish and nutrients; once the chick becomes a certain age, it is then fed anchovies. Once the chicks/ semi-adult birds are fit and healthy they are released back into the wild. 

Q – How often do you get penguins in from boulders and Stony Point?

A- At least one penguin a week from both areas. In breeding season this can increase to two or three times a week. Some penguins breed late coinciding with moulting season.  They can’t swim during moulting season, so they abandon the eggs. This means a large influx of eggs come to the centre at that time; this is usually between October to January.

Q – How many penguins do Sanccob release in a month?

A – This occurs weekly and seasonally.

Q – How do you keep the birds from imprinting on the rehabilitators and other members of the public?

A – The two most common bird species susceptible to imprinting is the African penguin and all species of cormorants that the centre receives. It is more the juveniles than the adults that are affected by imprinting. The adults are used to growing up in the wild and not handled by people.The rehabilitator solves this problem with cormorants by  dressing up in a black suit with shade cloth over their face. In doing this all the bird sees are a black figure emulating the parent bird. However this is not applied to African penguins as that is the majority of birds in the centre and not everyone can wear penguin suits all day long. Thus, the objective is to do your job and move on, no cuddling the bird, no talking to the bird, no photographs or interacting with the bird. You do your assigned job if the bird ignoring the bird as much as possible. This not only helps prevent imprinting but also minimises stress for the other birds around the rehabilitator. Volunteers, interns and other members of staff that are hands-on with the birds are all on a rotational rote ensuring  no more than twice a week interaction, preventing the birds becoming too familiar with a single person.  

Sanccob - all in a day’s work
A juvenile African penguin being fed.

Q – How do you clean an oiled bird?

A – This is an extremely stressful time, not only for the birds but also for the people involved. It starts with the same admission procedure as before except we also record the amount of oil on the bird, e.g. 10% 20% etc. The second step is not cleaning the bird but instead allowing it rest to gain some weight and hydrate. After 2 – 3 days, the bird is rested and in better-shaped to be cleaned. Crude oil is the most common oil that the birds suffer from, so the first step when cleaning the bird is by putting more oil on it ??? No, not more crude oil but instead Canola oil. The Canola oil is left on for about five minutes, and this breaks down the crude oil to a certain degree so the bird can be washed. Four people are needed in this washing stage; one person holds the penguin and the other washes it, and this can take as long as an hour to complete. The soap used is called LCD which is just a type of industrial sunlight liquid. A thorough gentle scrub is done on the entire bird’s body; a toothbrush is used in difficult areas such as flippers or feet. Select personal protective equipment such as gloves, goggles and overalls are used during the cleaning of the penguins.   

After being washed the penguin is moved to the rinsing station. The rinsing of the bird not only gets rid of the soap but also promotes growth of the down feathers. Medium pressurised, lukewarm water is used starting at the bottom of the bird moving upwards to the head. After this process the bird is put into a drying room. The last stage of the process is placing the bird into a pool so it can swim and regenerate its natural oils.    

Q – What do you think is the biggest threat to African penguin colonies around South Africa?

A – The lack of fish stocks in the ocean, there is not enough fish for the penguins due to fisheries taking out large quotas of fish.

The biggest problem which not only African penguins struggle with but many other marine life as well, is low fish stocks.

Q – What is the best thing the general public can do to help save the species?

A – Stay away from single-use plastic, but also be conscious about the fish that you eat. Eat sustainable seafood and use Sassi as a guide.


The African penguins’ populations are decreasing across its habitat, mainly due to what has been mentioned above. Overfishing is a significant threat to not only to African penguins but also many other pelagic birds and marine species that rely on the ocean for food. We as humans are one of those species, and due to our overexploitation of the sea, many species are suffering. Coastal towns which have relied on the ocean for generations are now under threat of collapsing. To combat all of this, buy sustainable fish, download the SASSI app, don’t buy more fish products then what you need, don’t support fish restaurants or supermarkets that sell unsustainable fish products or fish species that are on the verge of collapse. Lastly make sure you know what you are buying, some supermarkets relabel their unsustainable fish that they catch as a sustainably caught fish or even worse in some places like Japan, instead of thinking that you bought line fish you could be eating dolphin or shark meat. See this link for more information about overfishing

Sanccob - all in a day’s work
A view of some of the pens and the pools which the birds swim in.

What else can you do for the African penguin?

If you want to support SANCCOB in its efforts to save the African penguin from extinction, you can help in a variety of different ways. You can volunteer, do an internship, adopt a penguin or donate directly to the rehabilitation centre. Follow the links below for more information. All these ways of helping really helps SANCCOB achieve the excellent work they are doing which ultimately makes a difference to the survival of the African penguin population.

Sanccob - all in a day’s work
Getting ready for lunch time.


Saving seabirds – SANCCOB | S A Foundation for the ….

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