Tagging Hobbles Penguins, Some Researchers in Cape Town Contend

By Ron Irwin
for National Geographic News
October 9, 2001

Off the coast of South Africa's Cape Town are some of the most accessible penguin colonies in the world, which are popular with visitors and residents alike.

Researchers have been studying these populations of African penguins for years as part of efforts to protect them. But the use of a tagging technique known as "flipper-banding" has generated local controversy, with some scientists saying it hobbles the birds' movement and should be stopped.

One of the penguin colonies is on Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 27 years before he was released and became president of South Africa in 1994.

Robben Island has about 20,000 African penguins, while nearby Dassen Island has an additional 20,000. These two permanent populations along with 35,000 more penguins that visit the area seasonally represent about 40 percent of all African penguins.

Every day boatloads of people depart for Robben Island on the hour to see the well-preserved penguin colonies on the beaches in front of the infamous prison, which is now a museum.

Capetonians are fiercely protective of the birds and have played a critical part in their survival.

When the bulk ore carrier M.V. Treasure foundered off Robben and Dassen Islands in June of last year, it spilled oil that covered nearly all the penguins at Robben Island. More than 12,000 people gathered for three months to clean the oily penguins. The volunteers also moved the population of penguins at Dassen Island out of harm's way. In the final tally, an estimated 556,000 hours of volunteer labor were devoted to saving the birds.

The release of the cleaned penguins back into the ocean three months later was a cause for celebration. Now, another alleged threat has surfaced.

Some local scientists are charging that Cape Town's already vulnerable penguins are subject to harm from the "flipper bands" that were attached after the oil spill cleanup so researchers could track and study the animals more easily. The bands are flat, numbered stainless steel strips that fit loosely around the upper part of a penguin's wing, or "flipper."

Others challenge the assertion that the banding is harmful. They insist the practice is benign and is crucial for the research that's needed to devise effective policies for protecting the penguins.

Voices of Concern

The controversy is inflamed by a scientific article co-written by Sue Jackson, a researcher in the Human and Animal Physiology Department of the Cape's University of Stellenbosch. The paper, now in press at the British journal Functional Ecology, summarizes recently published studies on the effects of flipper-banding of penguins.

Continued on Next Page >>


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